Go All-In, Or Fold
In Afghanistan, Splitting the Difference May Be Obama's Most Dangerous Choice
KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, Afghanistan
Sitting in an air-conditioned office within this gargantuan NATO encampment in southern Afghanistan, a U.S. officer pointed to a map of Kandahar province that indicated, with small, rectangular boxes, where soldiers deployed by President Obama earlier this year were now operating.
There were two battalions to the north of Kandahar city. Another to the far south. Canadian forces were going to swing to the west. About 5,000 new U.S. troops in all.
"But there, there and there," the officer said, pointing to towns just outside a belt where the Americans and Canadians were stationed, "and there," putting his fist on the city, which with 800,000 residents is the country's second-largest population center, "we don't have anyone."
If more forces are not forthcoming to mount counterinsurgency operations in those parts of the province, he concluded, the overall U.S. effort to stabilize Kandahar -- and by extension, the rest of Afghanistan -- will fail.
"We might as well pack our bags and go home . . . and just keep a few Predators flying overhead to whack the al-Qaeda guys who return," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There's no point in doing half-measures here."
As Obama and senior members of his national security team plot the way forward in Afghanistan following Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's assessment, and in anticipation of the general's expected request for as many as 40,000 additional troops for the war, the starkest choices may be the president's best options. The most dangerous course, according to some military strategists and diplomats in Afghanistan, is what Obama often gravitates toward: the middle ground.
McChrystal's 66-page confidential assessment makes the case for a far more expansive counterinsurgency mission, one that would involve sending more troops and civilian reconstruction personnel to Kandahar and other key population centers to improve security, governance and economic opportunities for Afghans. Although the general never used the term in the assessment, his strategy amounts to a comprehensive nation-building endeavor.
He wants U.S. and NATO personnel to expand training programs for Afghan soldiers and policemen, reform the justice system, promote more effective local administration and ramp up reconstruction. If that occurs, he and other counterinsurgency experts contend, then Afghans who have sided with the Taliban out of fear or necessity will eventually switch sides and support the government. Building an effective state, in McChrystal's view, is the only way to defeat the insurgency.
The opposite view, espoused for some time by Vice President Biden and a growing number of liberal Democrats, is that such an effort has a slim chance of success given Afghanistan's size and complexities: the suspicion of outsiders, the harsh terrain, the lack of an educated civil service, the endemic corruption and the tribal rivalries. Instead, they argue, the United States should scale back its operations and focus directly on trying to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat" al-Qaeda, the core counterterrorism goals for Afghanistan that Obama endorsed this spring. Special Forces teams and combat aircraft would remain at the ready to target any terrorists with international ambitions who seek to set up shop in the country.
Such an approach, proponents say, would result in far fewer U.S. casualties in Afghanistan, and it would reduce the strain of repeated deployments on the American military.
Given the profound gulf between those options, and the political risks entailed by either, some in the Obama administration, as well as Democratic leaders in Congress, have begun to look for a way to split the difference, to do "counterinsurgency light" or "counterterrorism plus." One alternative would keep force levels steady but retain a broad counterinsurgency focus, forcing McChrystal to reallocate troops to his highest-priority areas. Another approach, advocated by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, would limit the mission of any new troops to training the Afghan security forces. A third option would reduce troop levels and concentrate the mission on training Afghan forces and targeting terrorists.