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Squabbling about Afghanistan review no big deal, Gibbs says

By Dave Cook / October 5, 2009



White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs spent much of Monday’s press briefing knocking down reports of bickering within the Obama administration over an ongoing review of the war in Afghanistan.

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Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, gave an unusually blunt speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London Thursday. He said that it would be “shortsighted” to narrow the US mission in the eight year old war in Afghanistan and focus on attacking Al Qaeda targets that are primarily based in Pakistan.

The following day, President Obama summoned McChrystal to Copenhagen, where the president was attending an Olympic summit.

Rumors in Washington have Vice President Joe Biden favoring the sort of constrained course that McChrystal dismissed, and these differences were supposed to be addressed and discussed in meetings held in the White House Situation Room – one last week and two more Wednesday and Friday.

The general, who was handpicked for his current assignment by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and endorsed by Mr. Obama, contends that Afghanistan could become a haven for terrorists if its government were to fall to the Taliban. He reportedly favors using additional American troops to help secure civilian areas in Afghanistan.

Quiet rebuke

McChrystal’s outspoken public comments triggered an implied rebuke over the weekend from Mr. Obama’s National Security Adviser, retired four star Marine General James Jones. “Ideally, it’s better for military advice to come up through the chain of command,” Mr. Jones told CNN’s John King on the network’s “State of the Nation” program.

When Gibbs was asked about the dispute at Monday’s briefing, he repeatedly downplayed the controversy. “The president believes strongly that we have a process that is working. That we ought to take the time to get this right,” Gibbs said.

He repeated the same formulation later saying, “The president is comfortable with where we are at in this process and how we are going about getting that strategy right.”

Privately, please

While Gibbs was downplaying reports of dissension, Mr. Gates seemed to echo Jones’s rebuke. Speaking at an Army convention Monday, Gates said, “It is important that we take our time to do all we can to get this right. And in this process, it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations — civilians and military alike — provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately.”

When asked about Obama’s relations with Gates, a holdover from the Bush cabinet, Gibbs said, “when you ask a question you get unvarnished advice."

The debate over US policy in Afghanistan comes in the midst of what Gates has called a “worrisome trajectory” in the war.

Some 66,000 US forces are stationed in the country. Over the weekend, eight American soldiers were killed when tribal militia laid siege to a combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan.

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