Changes in Afghanistan, Washington May Require Shift in U.S. War Strategy

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 21, 2009

From his headquarters in Kabul, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal sees one clear path to achieve President Obama's core goal of preventing al-Qaeda from reestablishing havens in Afghanistan: "Success," he writes in his assessment, "demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign."

Inside the White House, the way forward in Afghanistan is no longer so clear.

Although Obama endorsed a strategy document in March that called for "executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy," there have been significant changes in Afghanistan and Washington since then. A disputed presidential election, an erosion in support for the war effort among Democrats in Congress and the American public, and a sharp increase in U.S. casualties have prompted the president and his top advisers to reexamine their assumptions about the U.S. role in defeating the Taliban insurgency.

Instead of debating whether to give McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, more troops, the discussion in the White House is now focused on whether, after eight years of war, the United States should vastly expand counterinsurgency efforts along the lines he has proposed -- which involve an intensive program to improve security and governance in key population centers -- or whether it should begin shifting its approach away from such initiatives and simply target leaders of terrorist groups who try to return to Afghanistan.

McChrystal's assessment, in the view of two senior administration officials, is just "one input" in the White House's decision-making process. The president, another senior administration official said, "has embarked on a very, very serious review of all options." The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

Obama, appearing on several Sunday-morning television news shows, left little doubt that key assumptions in the earlier White House strategy are now on the table. "The first question is: Are we doing the right thing?" the president said on CNN. "Are we pursuing the right strategy?"

"Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy, I'm not going to be sending some young man or woman over there -- beyond what we already have," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press." If an expanded counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan contributes to the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, "then we'll move forward," he said. "But, if it doesn't, then I'm not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or . . . sending a message that America is here for the duration."

National security adviser James L. Jones said Sunday that McChrystal's assessment "will be analyzed as to whether it is in sync with the strategy that the president announced in March."

The assessment "could be accepted in its entirety," Jones said. Alternatively, he added, the White House could seek additional analysis from McChrystal, or Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates could issue new guidance to him about his mission and strategy.

In his 66-page assessment, McChrystal does not address other approaches to combating the Taliban. A senior U.S. military official in Kabul said the general was operating under the assumption that the earlier White House endorsement of a counterinsurgency approach "was a settled issue."

McChrystal said he thinks the way to meet the president's relatively narrow objective of denying al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan involves a wide-ranging U.S. and NATO effort to protect civilians from insurgents by improving the Afghan government's effectiveness. That means not only more troops, but also a far more aggressive program to train Afghan security forces, promote good local governance, root out corruption, reform the justice sector, pursue narcotics traffickers, increase reconstruction activities and change the way U.S. troops interact with the Afghan population.

The implicit recommendation is that the United States and its NATO partners need to do more nation-building, and they need to do it quickly.

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