The Alternative Afghanistan Plan Looks Like a Loser

Thursday, October 8, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA kicked off his reconsideration of strategy in Afghanistan by questioning on national television whether the United States needed to keep supporting the Afghan government and army. But the alternatives the president appears to be considering do not depart so radically from the plan proposed by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. Mr. Obama told congressional leaders Tuesday that he did not intend to reduce U.S. troop levels or limit U.S. operations to drone attacks on al-Qaeda. Nor, according to his national security adviser, would he give up on building the Afghan government and army.

The White House's Plan B would mainly amount to refusing Gen. McChrystal most of the additional U.S. troops he has requested -- thereby saving the president a decision that would anger his political base. Instead of aiming to reverse the Taliban's momentum in the next year, as Gen. McChrystal proposed, the idea would be to rapidly build the Afghan army so that it could take over the fight and to focus U.S. initiatives on defeating al-Qaeda in Pakistan.

Such a choice by Mr. Obama would hardly amount to a surrender in what he has called "a war of necessity." It would, however, repeat the strategic errors of the Bush administration -- mistakes that left the mess the new administration is facing in Afghanistan and that brought Iraq to the brink of catastrophe three years ago.

In Iraq, Mr. Bush and his defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, also decided to minimize American troop levels; they launched an ambitious effort to train new Iraqi troops while emphasizing pinpoint strikes on al-Qaeda and insurgent leaders. But the fresh Iraqi forces could not carry the fight on their own; as the insurgency grew stronger, sectarian conflict erupted in Baghdad and other areas. Only by launching the surge in 2007, which partnered American and Iraqi units in pacifying population centers, was Mr. Bush able to reverse the downward spiral. U.S. commanders absorbed the lesson: That is why Gen. McChrystal and nearly every other present or former U.S. commander in the region favor adapting the surge model to Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, Mr. Bush's error was incrementalism -- sending just enough reinforcements each year after 2003 to match the growing threat of the Taliban but never enough to turn the situation around. For several years, strikes on Taliban commanders were emphasized over taking and holding ground. The alternative to Gen. McChrystal's plan would essentially perpetuate that losing effort. It likely would mean accepting hundreds more deaths of U.S. and allied troops in the next year without significant progress against the Taliban; probably there would be further losses of ground. It would mean decreased leverage over the Afghan and Pakistani governments, which would be less willing to go along with the objectives of an administration that was curtailing its own commitments. It would damage the effort to persuade Taliban fighters and low-level commanders to switch sides. And it could doom the effort to create an Afghan army that could pacify the country on its own.

Gen. McChrystal concluded in his recent review of the Afghan situation that a "failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible." Mr. Obama seemed, at first, to be questioning whether defeating the Taliban was necessary. By resolving to maintain troop levels as they are, he has chosen to continue the fight. The question that remains is whether Mr. Obama will prefer the risk of defeat that the general outlined to the costs of sending tens of thousands of more American forces. The latter course does not guarantee success by any means, but the former is a proven loser.

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