Congress needs McChrystal's candid advice on Afghanistan

Obama was wise to meet top lawmakers today, but he must unmuzzle the top brass.

A pending White House decision on whether to put more US troops in Afghanistan will require backing by Congress. So President Obama was smart to hold a bipartisan meeting of top lawmakers today to discuss this difficult choice.

But he must go further and remove a newly imposed muzzle on the military's top brass, especially Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Otherwise, Congress – and the American public – won't have the same candid advice that the president receives in choosing whether to expand this war.

The muzzle was imposed Monday by Defense Secretary Robert Gates after McChrystal offered some policy advice last week at a forum in London, saying any plan that fails to leave a stable Afghanistan "is probably a shortsighted strategy."

Mr. Gates warned that military deliberations on Afghanistan must be done privately – and only up the chain of command to the president, the commander in chief.

While his warning reflects the necessary subordination of the military to civilian control during war, this sort of gag order would leave Congress out of the loop in weighing all the necessary information before deciding to fund up to 40,000 more soldiers – a nearly 60 percent increase – in the fight against the Taliban.

Wars certainly can't be left to generals, but then, generals can't be left out of public decisions about war.

That lesson was learned the hard way in both Vietnam and Iraq, two wars in which many Army officers regretted either not speaking out or not resigning in protest to prevent unwise decisions by their civilian masters.

And too often, the civilians do not give enough autonomy to the military professionals to make tactical decisions – recall Lyndon Johnson picking bombing targets in Vietnam – which may then only compel generals to question a war's grand strategy. The delicate balance in civilian-military relations can too easily be put out of whack.

Officers are expected to do more than simply execute wars. They must also have the intellectual independence and the professional military judgment to advise elected leaders – both Congress and the president. They should not fear a demotion or be fired by the executive branch if they give unvarnished assessments at hearings on Capitol Hill in a run-up to decisions on war strategy.

The military's blunt assessments are necessary until a decision is made by the civilian side. Only then should a loyal officer "salute and obey."

Ever since the Vietnam War, presidents have either taken or been given more authority in deciding when and where to deploy the military overseas into war. That shift of power, however, should not extend to preventing the rightful role of Congress to hear frank talk from generals.

War, like any other aspect of federal government, still needs checks and balances between the branches.

A muzzle on the military should not be one of those checks.

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