Hillary Clinton on Afghanistan

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 6:56 PM EDT

Via Steve Clemons, here is Hillary Clinton on The News Hour tonight talking about Afghanistan:

MARGARET WARNER: Getting back to General McChrystal's memo though, he conveys a great sense of urgency. I mean there's one line in there in which he says, "failure to gain the initiative" — and he's talking about in the near term, while we wait for the Afghan security forces to really get able to handle this — he said, "risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency's no longer possible." So he is strongly suggesting that there aren't months and months to come to a decision here.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well and I respect that because clearly he is the commander on the ground, but I can only tell you there are other assessments from, you know, very expert military analysts who have worked in counter insurgencies that are the exact opposite. So what our goal is, is to take all of this incoming data and sort it out.

That's interesting.  What exactly is Clinton referring to when she says "exact opposite"?  Is she suggesting that a bunch of other analysts are saying we can take our time figuring out what to do?  That's the literal interpretation here, but it doesn't seem very likely.

But if that's not what she means, then she must be referring to something more substantive about McChrystal's strategy.  And the internal disagreements must be pretty stark if some of the advice Obama is getting is the "exact opposite" of McChrystal's.

There are only hints of what this might be, though.  At one point Clinton says McChrystal's assessment is important, "but it's a part of the overall process and there are many other considerations that we have to take into account."  To my ear, she also seems to downplay McChrystal's emphasis on governance, suggesting that although things in Afghanistan aren't moving at the pace she'd like, "there are some positive changes going on [...] and I can see, you know, the positives and then we want to move more to the positive side of the ledger."  Then there's this:

We have a clear and critical objective of trying to disrupt and dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and their extremist allies and prevent a return to safe haven....Some people say, "well al-Qaida's no longer in Afghanistan." If Afghanistan were taken over by the Taliban, I can't tell you how fast al-Qaida would be back in Afghanistan. So we have to be really clear-eyed about this.

I might be overinterpreting all this, but my take from this interview is that McChrystal wants to emphasize counterinsurgency (population protection, "heart and minds") more than counterterrorism (killing bad guys) while perhaps Clinton — and Obama? — would rather do the opposite.  When Warner asks about governance, for example, Clinton doesn't seem very engaged: sure, Afghanistan is corrupt, but hey — the place has never been well governed and the improvements we're seeing now are nothing to sneeze at.  But when Warner asks about al-Qaeda, Clinton gets much more animated. "We have to be really clear-eyed about this," she insists.  There might be a bigger struggle over fundamental strategy going on in the White House than we think.

UPDATE: It looks like pretty much everyone agrees that the counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism argument has now heated up to the boiling point.  LA Times here, McClatchy here, Washington Post here.

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