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Go All-In, Or Fold
In Afghanistan, Splitting the Difference May Be Obama's Most Dangerous Choice

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Sunday, September 27, 2009

KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan

Sitting in an air-conditioned office within this gargantuan NATO encampment in southern Afghanistan, a U.S. officer pointed to a map of Kandahar province that indicated, with small, rectangular boxes, where soldiers deployed by President Obama earlier this year were now operating.

There were two battalions to the north of Kandahar city. Another to the far south. Canadian forces were going to swing to the west. About 5,000 new U.S. troops in all.

"But there, there and there," the officer said, pointing to towns just outside a belt where the Americans and Canadians were stationed, "and there," putting his fist on the city, which with 800,000 residents is the country's second-largest population center, "we don't have anyone."

If more forces are not forthcoming to mount counterinsurgency operations in those parts of the province, he concluded, the overall U.S. effort to stabilize Kandahar -- and by extension, the rest of Afghanistan -- will fail.

"We might as well pack our bags and go home . . . and just keep a few Predators flying overhead to whack the al-Qaeda guys who return," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There's no point in doing half-measures here."

As Obama and senior members of his national security team plot the way forward in Afghanistan following Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's assessment, and in anticipation of the general's expected request for as many as 40,000 additional troops for the war, the starkest choices may be the president's best options. The most dangerous course, according to some military strategists and diplomats in Afghanistan, is what Obama often gravitates toward: the middle ground.

McChrystal's 66-page confidential assessment makes the case for a far more expansive counterinsurgency mission, one that would involve sending more troops and civilian reconstruction personnel to Kandahar and other key population centers to improve security, governance and economic opportunities for Afghans. Although the general never used the term in the assessment, his strategy amounts to a comprehensive nation-building endeavor.

He wants U.S. and NATO personnel to expand training programs for Afghan soldiers and policemen, reform the justice system, promote more effective local administration and ramp up reconstruction. If that occurs, he and other counterinsurgency experts contend, then Afghans who have sided with the Taliban out of fear or necessity will eventually switch sides and support the government. Building an effective state, in McChrystal's view, is the only way to defeat the insurgency.

The opposite view, espoused for some time by Vice President Biden and a growing number of liberal Democrats, is that such an effort has a slim chance of success given Afghanistan's size and complexities: the suspicion of outsiders, the harsh terrain, the lack of an educated civil service, the endemic corruption and the tribal rivalries. Instead, they argue, the United States should scale back its operations and focus directly on trying to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaeda, the core counterterrorism goals for Afghanistan that Obama endorsed this spring. Special Forces teams and combat aircraft would remain at the ready to target any terrorists with international ambitions who seek to set up shop in the country.

Such an approach, proponents say, would result in far fewer U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, and it would reduce the strain of repeated deployments on the American military.

Given the profound gulf between those options, and the political risks entailed by either, some in the Obama administration, as well as Democratic leaders in Congress, have begun to look for a way to split the difference, to do "counterinsurgency light" or "counterterrorism plus." One alternative would keep force levels steady but retain a broad counterinsurgency focus, forcing McChrystal to reallocate troops to his highest-priority areas. Another approach, advocated by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, would limit the mission of any new troops to training the Afghan security forces. A third option would reduce troop levels and concentrate the mission on training Afghan forces and targeting terrorists.

All three approaches have the appeal of avoiding a significant troop increase -- there are now about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan -- and the administration could bill any of them as something other than a full retrenchment to simply fighting terrorists. But they run the risk of prolonging the status quo: Without a substantial escalation in forces, U.S. troops would remain in the same sort of slow-bleed situation they are in now, subjected to roadside bomb attacks that kill dozens of military personnel each month while unable to "gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term," as McChrystal wrote in his assessment.

Waging a successful counterinsurgency campaign with current force levels could prove impossible. The 10,000 Marines deployed to Helmand province and the 4,000 Army soldiers in Stryker armored vehicles who were sent to Kandahar -- all among the 21,000 troops authorized by Obama this year -- may be able to improve security in the towns and districts where they are operating. But those are just a few spots on the map; there would still be plenty of populated areas in Helmand and Kandahar with few or no NATO troops. It is to those places, districts to the north of where the Strykers are, and to the west of where the Marines are, that the Taliban fighters have retreated. And it is from those places, military officials believe, that the insurgents will seek to destabilize whatever gains the new U.S. forces make.

In theory, once the districts with the Marines and the Strykers become more stable, and once Afghan police and soldiers become capable of ensuring security, U.S. forces can move on to the next trouble spots. The problem is that creating effective Afghan security forces takes time, and it will not be solved by adding a few thousand more trainers. Without more U.S. troops, those sanctuaries will remain unchallenged and will pose an ongoing risk to McChrystal's protect-the-population effort.

All of which brings some here back to the extremes: Either you go all-in, or you fold.

The all-in approach as envisioned by McChrystal involves fundamental risks: More troops will die. The corrupt and incompetent Afghan government may be unable, for quite some time, to hold territory that has been cleared by NATO forces. Bureaucratic infighting could hobble efforts to integrate civilian reconstruction experts with military units. And as the casualties and costs rise, driven by a redoubled Taliban response, patience back home may erode further. Fifty-one percent of respondents in two Washington Post-ABC News polls conducted this summer already said the war is not worth fighting, the highest level of disapproval since the war began in 2001.

McChrystal's supporters contend that his strategy offers the only chance of accomplishing the administration's core goal of denying al-Qaeda's return while creating the sort of Afghanistan that the Bush administration pledged to build after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but never fully resourced: a nation where girls can attend school, where farmers grow wheat and pomegranates instead of opium-producing poppies, where infant mortality is no longer among the world's worst. They argue that counterterrorism was the focus of the Afghan mission until 2005, and it didn't work.

The fold approach -- to engage simply in counterterrorism operations -- is riddled with its own drawbacks: The Taliban would effectively control the country's south and east, and a civil war would probably resume among it and ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras for control of the west and the north. Counterterrorism missions would be hindered by a lack of on-the-ground intelligence. Pakistan could be further destabilized as the Taliban reverses its operations and starts using Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks across the border.

On paper, counterinsurgency has been the administration's strategy since March, when the White House completed an initial review of the war. But much has occurred since then, most significantly Afghanistan's fraud-riddled presidential election. "What's most important is that there is a sense of legitimacy -- in Afghanistan, among the Afghan people -- for their government," Obama said at a news conference Friday. "If there is not, that makes our task much more difficult."

All the options Obama faces in Afghanistan are unpalatable. With Iraq, when presented with a set of troop-withdrawal timelines this year, the president took the middle way. He has shown similar instincts on health-care reform and the detention of terrorism suspects. With Afghanistan, however, that may be the most perilous path.

The idea of sending thousands more troops will be a tough sell to Congress. Pulling back to a far more narrow mission could open Obama to charges of flip-flopping -- he told veterans as recently as last month that the conflict in Afghanistan is a "war of necessity" that is fundamental to American security. Splitting the difference could have the advantage of winning over moderates in both parties, as well as voters who have begun to question the extent of the U.S. commitment there.

But Obama may want to resist that lure. Although the middle ground is often safe political terrain, it can be the riskiest spot on the battlefield.

rajiv@washpost.com

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, an associate editor at The Washington Post, covers the war in Afghanistan. He will be online to chat with readers at 11 a.m. on Monday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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