In any case, now we know that Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan is not intended to subdue (much less "kill every member of," as an Obama aide describes defeating them) the Taliban. What it is for is not so clear.
His chance came at an Oct. 8 meeting of Obama's principal advisers, presided over by Jones -- the "dress rehearsal" for a full-scale National Security Council gathering the president would hold the next day.
Speaking by video link from Kabul, McChrystal began with the policy underlying his approach, established by the White House review, hastily compiled in February, that led to Obama's March 27 strategy announcement and the deployment of nearly 22,000 new troops through the spring and summer.
In June, McChrystal noted, he had arrived in Afghanistan and set about fulfilling his assignment. His lean face, hovering on the screen at the end of the table, was replaced by a mission statement on a slide: "Defeat the Taliban. Secure the Population."
"Is that really what you think your mission is?" one of those in the Situation Room asked.
On the face of it, it was impossible -- the Taliban were part of the fabric of the Pashtun belt of southern Afghanistan, culturally if not ideologically supported by a significant part of the population. "We don't need to do that," Gates said, according to a participant. "That's an open-ended, forever commitment."
But that was precisely his mission, McChrystal responded, and it was enshrined in the Strategic Implementation Plan -- the execution orders for the March strategy, written by the NSC staff.
"I wouldn't say there was quite a 'whoa' moment," a senior defense official said of the reaction around the table. "It was just sort of a recognition that, 'Duh, that's what, in effect, the commander understands he's been told to do.' Everybody said, 'He's right.' "
"It was clear that Stan took a very literal interpretation of the intent" of the NSC document, said Jones, who had signed the orders himself. "I'm not sure that in his position I wouldn't have done the same thing, as a military commander." But what McChrystal created in his assessment "was obviously something much bigger and more longer-lasting . . . than we had intended."
Whatever the administration might have said in March, officials explained to McChrystal, it now wanted something less absolute: to reverse the Taliban's momentum, deter it and try to persuade a significant number of its members to switch sides. "We certainly want them not to be able to overthrow the government," Jones said.
On Oct. 9, after awaking to the news that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Obama listened to McChrystal's presentation. The "mission" slide included the same words: "Defeat the Taliban." But a red box had been added beside it saying that the mission was being redefined, Jones said. Another participant recalled that the word "degrade" had been proposed to replace "defeat."
Already briefed on the previous day's discussion, the president "looked at it and said: 'To be fair, this is what we told the commander to do. Now, the question is, have we directed him to do more than what is realistic? Should there be a sharpening . . . a refinement?' " one participant recalled.
Said a senior White House adviser who took extensive notes of the meeting: "The big moment when the mission became a narrower one was when we realized we're not going to kill every last member of the Taliban."
"Defeat" = "kill every last member"?