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Civilian, Military Officials at Odds Over Resources Needed for Afghan Counterinsurgency
"The skeptics are growing," one senior official said.
Asked why Obama is questioning a key assumption of his Afghanistan strategy just six months after he stood before a bank of flags and endorsed the white paper, administration spokesmen have cited the potential impact on counterinsurgency efforts of the country's fraud-riddled presidential election in August. They have also noted that Obama said in March that he would review whether the United States was "using the right tools and tactics to make progress."
But senior officials involved in Afghanistan strategy discussions now and earlier this year said the lack of agreement in March about counterinsurgency will make these deliberations more protracted and disputatious.
"We're going back to key assumptions," one official said.
Agreement on the Goal
Less than three weeks after Obama took office, the White House selected former CIA officer Bruce Riedel to review U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Riedel was told to consult broadly but act quickly: The president wanted his conclusions by mid-March, before a NATO summit in Europe early in April.
Working with national security adviser James L. Jones and his top aides, Riedel assembled a team that included representatives from the Defense and State departments and the CIA. A senior official from the Joint Chiefs of Staff was there. So, too, was Biden's national security adviser, Antony Blinken, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who was President George W. Bush's Iraq war czar but was kept on by Jones to help manage Afghanistan war policy for the National Security Council. Petraeus and Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's point man at the State Department for Afghanistan and Pakistan, often attended the group's meetings.
In a campaign speech in June 2008, Obama called the fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and in the frontier regions of Pakistan "a war that we must win." He did not mention the Taliban, the insurgents battling U.S. forces and the Afghan government. Although the Taliban welcomed Osama bin Laden when it ruled Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence officials say they believe there are few, if any, links between Taliban commanders in Afghanistan today and senior al-Qaeda members.
Obama's choice of words was not lost on members of the review team. They, too, argued that the United States should focus on al-Qaeda. Their final document made the point bluntly: "The core goal of the U.S. must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda."
But the question of how to achieve that end provoked pointed debate. Most participants insisted that the only way to prevent al-Qaeda from returning to Afghanistan would be to build up an Afghan government, with a large enough police force and army to defend itself. That would require continued U.S. assistance, in reconstruction and in fighting the Taliban. And that meant counterinsurgency.
Blinken, speaking for his boss, argued that trying to build an Afghan state strong enough to withstand the Taliban would take more time and resources than the American public would be willing to tolerate. If the goal is defeating al-Qaeda, he said, the United States should pursue a more focused strategy, targeting terrorists who seek to set up operations in Afghanistan.
One participant described the counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism debate as "very spirited." But, the participant said, referring to Blinken, "at the end of the day, he was a minority of one."
Counterterrorism is "what the Bush administration did largely for seven years, and it didn't work," Riedel said. "And it's not likely to work in the future."