CNN Supervising Producer
A funny thing happened as the White House tried a relatively low-key approach to announcing that it was adding 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. The military didn’t seem to be on board with the message.
The announcement by the Obama administration contrasted with how the Bush administration announced both its increase of troops in Iraq, the “surge,” and even a later addition of troops to Afghanistan last year. Both of those announcements were made in a speech from then president George Bush.
But the new administration was stuck – it knew it needed to get troops to Afghanistan to satisfy the immediate need to stabilize things, but it also knew it was not ready to announce what its strategy for Afghanistan was. You see, the administration has a review underway for a new, comprehensive strategy that looks at both the military and diplomatic needs for the war.
So the Obama White House chose instead to make the announcement at the end of a day dominated by coverage of President Barack Obama's signing of the multi-billion dollar stimulus package. The announcement came out late afternoon via Pentagon leaks and then a four-paragraph email(subject line: “Statement by the President on Afghanistan”), and outlined a 50% increase in troops to Afghanistan.
Pentagon officials told Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr that the troop levels would be needed for at least another three-to-four years. But a White House official spun back to our Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry, telling him it unclear whether the troops will be there a minimum of three to four years.
“That would prejudge the outcome of the strategic review,” the senior administration official said of the total review of all aspects of the war that has been ordered by the President.
Get it? They might be needed for the rest of the president’s first term, but don’t want say it just yet.
But then the same discord repeated itself the next day.
The top commander in Afghanistan was in town to brief the Pentagon press about the plan. His opening remarks, he made clear his appearance was not an orchestrated effort to announce the troop plans.
"I know you probably think this is - I'm in Washington to coincide with the president's announcement yesterday, but, believe it or not, I'm here for a two-day Army conference and it just happened that timing lined up," General David McKiernan said.
While he said he was 'very delighted" with the announcement, he also said he expects the increased force levels to be needed for the "the next three to four to five years."
"So it'll be several years of that kind of force level?," re-asked the reporter.
"It could be as much as that," McKiernan replied.
But Secretary Robert Gates, speaking to press Thursday night, was still not willing to put a timeline on it.
"The timelines and the goals remain to be seen as a result of the strategic review," Gates, who was appointed to stay on in his role as defense secretary by the new president said.
Why the difference. The answer lies, perhaps, in the statement released announcing the increase.
"This troop increase does not pre-determine the outcome of that strategic review," the statement said. "Instead, it will further enable our team to put together a comprehensive strategy that will employ all elements of our national power to fulfill achievable goals in Afghanistan."
The White House does not want the troop increase to be seen as a telegraphing of the ongoing review. But military commanders, like Gen. McKiernan have their own agenda. Politics aside, McKiernan seemed to be giving his own take on Afghanistan, signaling that he needs his troops. He need them for a number of years.
The official review is expected near the end of March.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
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