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Former local military leaders comment on Afghanistan

As news broke Sunday that Afghanistan had its leader in Hamid Karzai, the world turned its focus to President Barack Obama who continues to contemplate whether to deploy 40,000 more troops there at the request of Gen. Stanley H. McChrystal, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

In an effort to better understand the decision weighing on the president and how his choice could affect the soldiers stationed at Fort Benning, the Ledger-Enquirer asked several retired military leaders in Columbus to share their thoughts.

Former Fort Benning commander and retired Lt. Gen. Robert L. “Sam” Wetzel said Obama would have been wise to listen to McChrystal when in August the general proposed his strategy.

“When the general came in August asking for the 40,000 troops, they should have made a decision back then,” Wetzel said. “The commander in the field, he knows what the hell’s going on better than the politicians in Washington.”

Retired colonel and former Columbus mayor Bob Poydasheff agreed with Wetzel, and pointed to McChrystal’s sterling reputation as a tested leader and counterinsurgency expert.

“Given the fact that General McChrystal and General (David) Petraeus are brilliant people and I absolutely trust their judgment, indeed I believe that when a general on the ground offers his opinion we should respect that recommendation at least to see whether it will work,” Poydasheff said.

Karzai’s election as Afghanistan’s president seems to have accelerated the urgency to implement a plan for further U.S. involvement. Whether Obama adopts McChrystal’s suggested strategy or opts for a pared-down version of it — which some officials and news outlets are calling “McChrystal Light” — retired Maj. Gen. Ken Leuer said the first thing the president has to do is determine what he hopes to achieve by such a massive troop surge.

“I think as long as we can really define the end state and we agree with the end state then we have to support the field commander in what he thinks he needs to accomplish the mission,” Leuer said.

The former Fort Benning commander added he thinks Obama chose to delay his decision regarding the proposed surge until after the Afghan election because success in Afghanistan will depend heavily on Karzai’s commitment to promoting and supporting whatever outcome both countries find acceptable.

“The country itself would have to unite in an effort to defeat the Taliban and rid itself as a haven for terrorists,” Leuer said.

If Karzai chooses a leadership strategy wholly out of synch with what U.S. and NATO officials find acceptable and Obama chooses not to send more troops because of that, Leuer said he would support the president’s decision.

As a counterinsurgency advocate, McChrystal says the only way to turn the Afghan war around is to win the loyalties of the people, provide citizens with protection, rid cities of Taliban influence and build infrastructure.

Retired Maj. Gen. Carmen Cavezza said he can only assume that McChrystal knows what he’s talking about when it comes to counterinsurgency tactics.

“The first assumption is that General McChrystal asked for what he needed,” Cavezza said. “He wouldn’t have asked for it if he didn’t need it and the president ought to do it to support his commander.”

Cavezza added that, to be fair, he had no knowledge of the extraneous factors that could be influencing Obama’s decision. For example, the president could be holding out for NATO to commit additional forces, the former Fort Benning commander said.

It’s anyone’s guess how Fort Benning would be affected should Obama approve and implement McChrystal’s proposed Afghan strategy. Even with the 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team of 3rd Infantry Division gone on a year-long tour in Iraq, the post still boasts a handful of other deployable units such as military police and medical companies that could be called to war at a moment’s notice.

It’s entirely possible that some or all of the 3rd Brigade could be diverted from Iraq to Afghanistan should the need arise, said Cavezza, Leuer, Wetzel and Poydasheff.

Should the country call upon one of the most deployed combat brigades in the Army to shift its focus to Afghanistan in the coming months, Poydasheff said there may be some initial resistance from the troops, but in the end the soldiers of the 3rd HBCT will do what is asked of them and do it well.

“I’m so proud of the 3rd Infantry Division,” Poydasheff said. “They’ll be some grumping and griping at first, but by God they’re professionals and they’ll take what comes their way. They will do what they have to do.”