More modest aims in Afghanistan reflect Biden's hand in strategy

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, initially advocated a larger troop increase and a slower deployment.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, initially advocated a larger troop increase and a slower deployment. (Kevin Frayer/associated Press)
By Greg Jaffe and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 3, 2009

President Obama's decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan looks at first like a defeat for his vice president, who pushed hard for holding down the number of U.S. troops in the country. But the plan also gives Vice President Biden a lasting victory: a strategy that lays out far more modest goals for the embattled nation.

Biden originally argued that it would be fruitless -- perhaps even naive -- to add more forces in the hope of stabilizing Afghanistan by shoring up its central government. Besides the country's fragmented political history and his own doubts about President Hamid Karzai, Biden viewed Afghanistan as a much different and more difficult place than Iraq, with a far higher illiteracy rate and fragmented civil society, senior administration officials said.

Obama ultimately sided with the dire assessment of his top field commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that without a massive increase in troop levels the war would be lost. But Biden's central point -- that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan should be limited to denying al-Qaeda a haven in the country from which it planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- shifted the debate within the administration.

The result is a set of goals that are among the most limited of the eight-year war. "All along, you may recall, I'd been arguing the strategy is more important than the numbers. And the president laid out the strategy: This is a regional issue; number one priority al-Qaeda, number two Pakistan, number three giving the Karzai government a fighting chance to be able to sustain itself," Biden said Wednesday morning on CBS News. "The existential threat to the United States remains in the mountains in Pakistan. That's where we have to keep the focus."

Biden sought, and ultimately got, a narrowed mission that shifted the focus of U.S. efforts away from aims such as extending the reach of the Afghan government to more remote regions of the country and fostering representative democracy. Now the focus is on reversing the Taliban's momentum and transferring responsibility for security to Afghan forces as quickly as possible.

Pentagon is supportive

The decision to bolster the U.S. force by about 30,000 troops in the next six months -- a more rapid escalation than McChrystal or the military had initially advocated -- has drawn support inside the Pentagon. The additional troops will give McChrystal the forces he needs to pursue a full-scale counterinsurgency strategy in those areas of Afghanistan he deems most critical.

But the strategy also reflects Biden's skepticism and the growing frustration with the war by setting a July 2011 deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. forces, as conditions warrant. The timeline, in particular, has given pause to some military officials who said they are concerned that it was driven more by domestic political considerations than the mission in Afghanistan. "I never have liked timelines," said one senior military official involved in the review. "The Afghan people need to understand that we are here to win it."

To some in the military, the skepticism of Biden and other administration officials seemed to grow out of a desire to begin to reduce troop levels before the 2012 presidential election. "These people were fashioning a strategy that no military person could endorse," said the senior military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations.

During the White House review, Biden did not specifically demand a withdrawal deadline. But the time frame Obama mapped out, including the drawdown to begin in the summer of 2011, has an unmistakably "Bidenesque" imprint because it is so narrow in scope, according to a senior administration official who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Gates's views

Biden's more skeptical view also reflected the thinking of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and McChrystal, who have emphasized working with local tribal authorities and village elders to drive out the Taliban and stabilize the country, thereby minimizing the role of the Karzai government.

"I have believed ever since I got this job that we have been too focused on the central government in Kabul and not enough on the provinces, districts and tribes," Gates told lawmakers Wednesday.

The defense secretary, who brokered a compromise between skeptics of escalation and military commanders, also seemed to reflect Biden's concerns by noting in his testimony that the administration's earlier Afghan policy review was seen as a "commitment to full-scale nation-building."

It was a strategy that "sounded very open ended," Gates said.

Even so, the secretary privately expressed concern about a fixed timeline for withdrawal, signing on only after the White House added language saying troop cuts would be based on conditions in Afghanistan, officials said.

McChrystal's initial request for forces appeared to have been devised with the more ambitious goals in mind. The 40,000 troops he asked for earlier this year would have taken more than 18 months to move into Afghanistan. Some military officials estimated that the higher troop levels would need to be maintained for as long as three years.

In truth, administration officials said, Obama and McChrystal, and the factions of the debate they represented, were not as far apart as they had seemed. "Both were blends. And where the president ended up was a blend," one official said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company