Behind the Afghan Strategy

Sunday, March 22, 2009; Page A19

You will hear a lot about President Obama putting his stamp on the war in Afghanistan over the next two weeks. But you won't hear the whole story. Smart generals and smart ambassadors don't upstage the boss, and Gen. David Petraeus and diplomat Richard Holbrooke are as smart as they come.

You will hardly see their fingerprints, even though the shape -- and the fate -- of the new Afghanistan strategy will depend greatly on the work and ideas of these two skilled policy operatives. Similar in drive and vision, they bring contrasting histories of involvement in American wars to their current assignments, and history is everything in Afghanistan, the land known as the graveyard of empires.

An informal beginning to the Afghan "rollout" -- D.C.-speak for a coordinated but segmented sales job of a new initiative to Congress, the media and diplomats of other nations -- will come in Brussels tomorrow, when Holbrooke will brief NATO allies privately on the strategic review ordered by Obama.

Then the president crosses the Atlantic to address three leadership summits, including NATO meetings in France and Germany April 3-4. Obama should be wise enough to avoid making a major issue of seeking new European troop commitments to Afghanistan. He will not want an air of confrontation to hover over a 60th-anniversary gathering that will also celebrate France's formally rejoining the alliance's military structure after a 43-year absence.

Instead, Obama plans to ask the Europeans to shoulder more of the financial and police-training burdens in Afghanistan as the United States increases its military presence and shifts its counterinsurgency tactics to give greater protection to Afghan civilians and the 38,000 American troops already there.

According to U.S. and foreign officials, Petraeus -- the regional commander for the Afghan and Iraqi theaters -- convinced the president last month that sending 17,000 new soldiers to Afghanistan will enable U.S. and allied commanders to reduce their reliance on the airstrikes and Special Forces raids that have inflicted growing civilian casualties and provoked bitter outbursts from President Hamid Karzai.

Obama is considering sending another U.S. combat brigade of trainers to help urgently double the size of the Afghan army. If he approves that deployment, Obama will come close to meeting the total increases that the military had sought from President George W. Bush before he left office. Bush deferred the request to Obama, although Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates supported earlier action.

Petraeus would also apply in Afghanistan another feature of the surge strategy that he championed in Iraq's Anbar province. U.S. intelligence estimates that only 5 percent of the Taliban are "hard core" ideologues sympathetic to al-Qaeda, and Petraeus wants a significant outreach by provincial Afghan officials and the U.S. officers who work with them to the "recoverable" Taliban. National reconciliation would come later.

The general acknowledges the great differences between the two countries. But his recent success in Iraq seems to drive his approach in Afghanistan. Holbrooke brings a different perspective, having experienced success in the Balkans but also having absorbed as a young diplomat the failure of pacification and counterinsurgency in Vietnam.

All through the Afghan strategic review the ghosts of Vietnam have been tugging at the sleeves of some of the president's advisers, while others have focused on the (still fragile) stabilization of Iraq. The "minimalist" camp, which includes Vice President Biden and the review's coordinator, Bruce Reidel, argued for modest goals -- essentially an Afghanistan that is not a base for international terrorism. The counterargument holds that political and economic development must continue to be emphasized to complement counterinsurgency.

Holbrooke seems to have been in the middle. He is already coordinating (i.e., completely overhauling) aid programs for both Afghanistan and Pakistan and establishing a functioning interagency process for the region. His forceful private interventions with Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari have spurred both to shift ground at crucial moments, foreign diplomatic sources report.

The arguments have been serious and intense enough for Obama to have delayed a decision beyond his original mid-March deadline and to go into this weekend pondering the final document. When the strategy emerges, it is likely to be a synthesis that moves everyone toward a middle ground. That is the other thing about smart operators: They also know when they have to bridge differences and get to work.


Updates: Since my column last week, American International Group (AIG) has disclosed that it sent $3 billion of U.S. taxpayers' money to UBS, which is refusing Justice Department demands to identify the thousands of Americans whom the Swiss bank helped evade U.S. taxes. Oy. And vey. On a more positive note, national security adviser Jim Jones flew secretly to Switzerland this month to meet with vacationing Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and then threw U.S. support behind Rasmussen to become the next NATO secretary general. Mazeltov, Denmark.

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