Obama's War | Sticker Shock

Civilian, Military Officials at Odds Over Resources Needed for Afghan Counterinsurgency

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009

In early March, after weeks of debate across a conference table in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the participants in President Obama's strategic review of the war in Afghanistan figured that the most contentious part of their discussions was behind them. Everyone, save Vice President Biden's national security adviser, agreed that the United States needed to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission to defeat the Taliban.

That conclusion, which was later endorsed by the president and members of his national security team, would become the first in a set of recommendations contained in an administration white paper outlining what Obama called "a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan." Preventing al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan, the document stated, would require "executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy."

To senior military commanders, the sentence was unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.

"It was easy to say, 'Hey, I support COIN,' because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes," said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

The failure to reach a shared understanding of the resources required to execute the strategy has complicated the White House's response to the grim assessment of the war by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, forcing the president to decide, in effect, what his administration really meant when it endorsed a counterinsurgency plan. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's follow-up request for more forces, which presents a range of options but makes clear that the best chance of achieving the administration's goals requires an additional 40,000 U.S. troops on top of the 68,000 who are already there, has given senior members of Obama's national security team "a case of sticker shock," the administration official said.

The meetings now underway in Washington are rooted in part in the gap in understanding that became evident in March. This account of how it opened up is based on interviews with several senior civilian members of the administration and military officers directly involved in Afghanistan issues. Nearly all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about internal policy discussions.

As the president's top defense and foreign policy officials debate the way forward, they have begun to revisit the March review's main conclusion, asking whether the administration's relatively narrow goal of preventing al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan would best be achieved through a full-on counterinsurgency mission or through a more limited counterterrorism operation that would target any high-level terrorists seeking to operate there again.

This time, the discussions about counterinsurgency will not remain theoretical or involve back-of-the-envelope estimates of troop levels. It is clear to all around the table now that pursuing a full counterinsurgency, at least according to the model developed in Iraq by Gen. David H. Petraeus and embraced by McChrystal, would entail tens of thousands of additional troops, legions of civilian specialists and billions more reconstruction dollars.

Senior military leaders, including Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Petraeus, who now heads the U.S. Central Command, have indicated their support for McChrystal's request in discussions with administration officials. Biden has taken the opposite view, renewing arguments he made earlier this year for a narrower counterterrorism mission instead of a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign. Others, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, have not staked out a firm position.

With the costs now clearer, some officials at the National Security Council and the State Department who voiced support for counterinsurgency in March have started to consider other options. There is increasing interest in Biden's stance, as well as in a modified counterinsurgency effort that would involve sending more military trainers but not more combat forces.

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