Zakaria: Obama should weigh troop level carefully

By Fareed Zakaria
Monday, October 26, 2009

Dick Cheney has accused Barack Obama of "dithering" over Afghanistan. If the president were to quickly invade a country on the basis of half-baked intelligence, would that demonstrate his courage and decisiveness to Cheney? In fact, it's not a bad idea for Obama to take his time, examine all options and watch how the post-election landscape in Afghanistan evolves.

The real question we should be asking about Afghanistan is: "Do we need a third surge?" The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in January 2008 was 26,607. Over the next six months, the total rose to 48,250. President Bush described this policy as "the quiet surge," and he made the standard arguments about the need for a counterinsurgency capacity -- the troops had to not only fight the Taliban but also protect the Afghan population, strengthen and train the Afghan army and police, and assist in development.

In January, 3,000 more troops, originally ordered by Bush, went to Afghanistan in the first days of the Obama presidency. In February, responding to a request from the commander in the field, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops into the country. Put another way, over the past 18 months, troop levels in Afghanistan have almost tripled. Sending an additional 40,000 troops would mean an over 300 percent increase in U.S. troops since 2008. (The total surge in Iraq was just over 20,000 troops.) It is not dithering to try to figure out why previous increases have not worked and why we think additional ones would.

In fact, focusing on the number of additional troops needed "misses the point entirely," says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander Obama put in place this summer. "The key takeaway" from his now-famous assessment "is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate." The quotes are from the third paragraph of his 66-page memo. These changes in strategy have just begun.

To understand how U.S. troops had been fighting in Afghanistan, consider the Battle of Wanat. On July 13, 2008, a large number of Taliban fighters surrounded an American base in that village, in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. After a few hours of fierce fighting, nine American soldiers lay dead, the largest number killed in a single engagement in years. Former Post reporter and defense expert Tom Ricks points out that Wanat is in a mountainous region with few people, many of them hostile to outsiders. So, he asks, "Why are we putting our fist in a hornet's nest?"

McChrystal has since pulled U.S. forces out of Wanat. The Post's Greg Jaffe, reporting on the town a year later, concluded recently that "ceding territory to the Taliban is more effective than maintaining small, vulnerable bases in forbidding terrain. In the past several weeks, U.S. commanders, based about six miles outside the village, have detected growing friction between Wanat residents and the Taliban commanders responsible for last year's attack." So why not let the Taliban try to set up bases in these remote areas with prickly locals? NATO forces can then periodically disrupt the Taliban rather than the other way around. In these places, counter-terrorism -- now often associated with Vice President Biden -- could work well with the grain of Afghan society.

Advocates of a troop increase act as if counterinsurgency is applied physics. McChrystal's team, having done the mathematical calculations, has apparently arrived at the exact answer. There is no room for variation or middle courses, the argument goes. But the theory that "it's 40,000 troops or no counterinsurgency" is absurd. The best evidence is that senior military officers assured me at various points over the past year that with the latest increase in troops they finally had enough forces to do counterinsurgency.

The crucial judgments that have to be made involve what the troops will do and how much of Afghanistan to cover. One option is the idea Ricks recently suggested to me: "Why not do the Petraeus plan [counterinsurgency] for the major population centers and the Biden plan [counterterrorism] for the rest of the country?" Following that middle course might be the most practical solution; more forces could still be needed, as McChrystal suggests, or perhaps we can make do with the almost 100,000 coalition forces already there. Obama should carefully consider all the options before racing to demonstrate how tough he is.

Fareed Zakaria is editor of Newsweek International and the author of "The Post-American World." His e-mail address is

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