How Mr. Obama shifted the Afghan strategy his generals proposed

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Thursday, December 3, 2009

NOW that President Obama has unveiled a strategy for Afghanistan whose bottom line -- 30,000 more troops -- looks a lot like the one Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal proposed three months ago, an obvious question arises: Did the president's prolonged deliberations produce any significant change in Gen. McChrystal's plans?

Vice President Biden and some of the president's aides describe the revision as massive. They portray Gen. McChrystal as having drawn up an overblown, decade-long, budget-busting "nation-building" plan. Mr. Obama, they say, wisely trimmed it down.

Since Gen. McChrystal's plan is available to anyone with an Internet connection, it's possible to check: In fact, it's Mr. Biden's claim that is overblown. Gen. McChrystal and Mr. Obama endorsed the same goals: reversing the Taliban's momentum and creating a space in which the Afghan government can assert itself while U.S. forces train the Afghan army to take over the fight.

Mr. Obama's supposedly stripped-down plan still includes tripling U.S. civilian personnel. It will include, according to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, "delivering high-impact assistance and bolstering the agriculture sector." There will be a big effort to build up new governing structures in the provinces. This is nation-building, regardless of what the administration calls it -- and Mr. Obama is right to do it.

Gen. McChrystal's plan set out a time frame of three to five years. Under Mr. Obama's plan, a senior administration official told us, "in five years there will be [American] troops in Afghanistan."

But Mr. Obama did alter Gen. McChrystal's outline in four significant ways. At least one is praiseworthy: an acceleration of the troop reinforcements, which will arrive within six instead of 16 months. This will make the escalation a true "surge" and raise its chances of success.

Mr. Obama also decided to rely on NATO allies to provide 5,000 to 7,000 fresh troops. This, along with the designation of 5,000 Afghan soldiers as trainers, allowed the White House to cut Gen. McChrystal's troop request from just over 40,000 to 30,000. Allied participation helps distinguish the mission from the imperialist adventures of Britain or the Soviet Union. But few NATO forces are as capable as America's battle-tested units.

Third, Gen. McChrystal wanted to increase the Afghan army to 240,000 troops over the next few years. Mr. Obama set a more limited goal of 130,000 by late next year. This does represent a scaling-down of nation-building, and, while risky, it may be sensible. A massive increase in the Army presents daunting obstacles, including finding sufficient literate recruits and reversing what is now an abysmal retention rate. A large national army also would require a strong and capable Afghan government to command it, and a permanent foreign subsidy. The new plan will give the administration flexibility to explore other ways to foster Afghan-led security, such as local or tribal militias.

Mr. Obama's last innovation is his most conspicuous: the July 2011 date for beginning a U.S. withdrawal. This will test a favorite theory of Democrats, who have long argued that deadlines are needed to force action by the political leaders whom U.S. troops support. The problem is that fixed dates can cause both those rulers and their enemies to focus on preparing for the day after they expire. Mr. Obama has mitigated those risks by making his date a starting point and linking the pace of withdrawal to events. If he is fortunate, it will inspire action by the Afghan government while reassuring Americans who oppose his escalation. If not, he has left himself the option of changing course.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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