Vetting the 34,000

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Navy photo / HMC Josh Ives

U.S. troops in Farah province, Jan. 24.

With General John Allen’s announcement Tuesday that he is hanging up his Marine uniform after 35 years, there’s a dwindling number of senior U.S. officials who know the logic behind President Obama’s decision to pull out 34,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by this time next year:

— Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is headed out the door.

— Marine General James Mattis, who as head of U.S. Central Command was Allen’s direct commander in Afghanistan, is slated to follow next month.

That’s pretty much the entire chain of command – President, defense secretary, combatant commander, theater commander.

It’s a safe bet that Marine General Joseph Dunford, who took over for Allen two weeks ago, was read into the decision.

But that logic would also seem to dictate that Mattis’ successor, Army General Lloyd Austin, also would be up to speed on the topic.

That’s what makes these exchanges at Austin’s confirmation hearing Feb. 14 before the Senate Armed Services Committee so perplexing:

SENATOR JOSEPH DONNELLY (D-Ind.): General Austin, as we heard the president say the other night, he is looking to withdraw 34,000 troops from Afghanistan and my question is can that be done in a way that does not leave Afghanistan less stable.

GEN. AUSTIN: Thank you, sir. Whereas I was not a part of the process that helped to generate the proposals for the numbers of troops to be drawn down and the rate at which they should be drawn down, I can tell you that, from having been a part of that process before, the things that — the types of — the types of things that commanders consider going into those recommendations really account for whether or not they can accomplish the assigned objectives and missions.

And so I would assume that General Allen and General Mattis, as they went through that process, provided their best military advice, and I would assume that to be the case. But having not been a part of that, I cannot speculate as to whether or not –

SEN. DONNELLY: How quickly will you become a part of that and take a look at that and looking at determination?

GEN. AUSTIN: If confirmed, sir, I will — I will get into that right away, and confer with General Dunford and the chairman and make sure that — you know, I have full understanding of the objectives, the missions and the resources that have been provided to accomplish those objectives…

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-Ariz.): The president has announced 34,000 troops — more than half our force currently serving in Afghanistan — will return home by the end of the year. Was this the recommendation of the informed military via the chairman of the Joint Chiefs? Was this the recommendation of the military?

GEN. AUSTIN: Senator, I don’t know what the specific recommendation was. As I understand it –

SEN. MCCAIN: No one has told you…what the recommendation of the military was?

GEN. AUSTIN: No, sir. I was not a part of that process. I know they –

SEN. MCCAIN: So you were excluded from knowing what the recommendation of the military was?

GEN. AUSTIN: I was not included —

SEN. MCCAIN: Especially given the new responsibilities you have?

GEN. AUSTIN: No, sir. I was not included in that process…

SEN. MCCAIN: In your best professional military advice, is the withdrawal of 34,000 troops this year in line with the conditions on the ground as you saw them?

GEN. AUSTIN: Sir, I defer to commander — the current commander —

SEN. MCCAIN: So you really have no opinion whatsoever about whether we should withdraw 34,000 — half our force — by the end of the year? Is that correct?

GEN. AUSTIN: Having not been a part of the process, sir, I don’t think that I should offer an opinion on this, because I don’t know everything that went into their calculus…

SEN. KELLY AYOTTE, R-N.H.: You have said in answer to Senator McCain that you didn’t — at this point you’ve not been involved in the decisions on the troop withdrawal in Afghanistan or the follow-on force following 2014. Is that right?

GEN. AUSTIN: Yes, ma’am.

SEN. AYOTTE: Have you spoken to either General Allen or General Dunford about this topic?

GEN. AUSTIN: Have I spoken with them?

SEN. AYOTTE: Have you spoken to them about what their recommendations are?

GEN. AUSTIN: No, ma’am, I have not…

SEN. AYOTTE: I’m actually very surprised as well that you’ve not had conversations, given that you’re taking over in CENTCOM, with General Allen or General Dunford about this very, very important question at this point…

But Austin was not the only senior U.S. military leader kept in the dark about cutting the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan by more than half over the coming year. The topic was never discussed among the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during their secret meetings in the tank, according to a senior officer who was there.

Whatever full and frank discussion of the way ahead in Afghanistan was limited to a handful of officers. Apparently, when you’re making a decision that many in the military will not like, best to keep it closely-held until it becomes a fait accompli during the State of the Union address.