The Afghanistan Strategy Dodge

Last week, President Barack Obama rejected four different plans for what to do in Afghanistan, each one including an increase in the number of U.S. troops in the region. Resources -- how much money and how many troops -- are at the forefront of the media's coverage of Obama's decision, and the most tangible measure of the conflict to most Americans.

But as the debate over Afghanistan has progressed, voices within the administration, military commanders like Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former officials like Gen. Colin Powell, and pundits like Fred Kaplan have argued that the focus shouldn't be on how many troops are sent to Afghanistan but what they will do when they get there. This is a misleading formulation that eliminates vital strategic options. In reality, the resources the U.S. commits in Afghanistan, in both troops and treasure, should be at the crux of this debate.

These observers are correct that strategy determines how we commit both money and troops. But the military says that all of the approaches under discussion -- counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, or even focusing entirely on training Afghan troops -- would require more soldiers in combat. (Even training involves the battlefield -- a critical part of that approach is having American mentoring units fight alongside Afghan troops.) In reality, all of these strategies combined will likely be required to accomplish the mission in Afghanistan. But success in Afghanistan may be best achieved by limiting the number of additional troops in the conflict.

Separating strategy from resources is in part a failure of analogy. The last time the United States managed to change the dynamic of a worsening conflict was the 2007 troop surge in Iraq. Despite repeated injunctions that Afghanistan is not Iraq, policy-makers are clearly cognizant of that experience when it comes to this conflict; it's no accident that "surge" has become the preferred nomenclature for Afghanistan.

But the surge in Iraq had so many variables that it is hard to attribute success only to the deployment of 20,000 additional soldiers. The military adopted counterinsurgency tactics across the theater, and McChrystal's then-command launched innovative counterterrorism squads to hunt down insurgent leaders. Others point to the decision of Muqtada al-Sadr, a critical militia leader, to stand down his forces, or the Anbar Awakening and resultant Sons of Iraq program, when Sunni tribes joined U.S. forces -- for pay -- to fight insurgents.

Few, if any of these dynamics will transfer to the new war. There is little indication, yet, that any of the various insurgent groups are amenable to dealing with the U.S. or Hamid Karzai's government; Afghanistan's largely rural landscape makes counterinsurgency a challenge, and even the highest troop deployment requested by McChrystal won't be enough to pursue counterinsurgency across the country. Even attempting to do so may not be wise -- former British and U.S. officials Rory Stewart and Matthew Hoh argue that many insurgents are provoked to violence by the presence of U.S. occupiers but don't present a broader national-security threat. Moreover, the troops military commanders have asked for couldn't be provided for at least a year without violating existing policies for giving soldiers rest at home between deployments, and even that deployment would leave the U.S.without a critical military reserve for any crises that pop up around the globe.

But there is one true similarity between Iraq and Afghanistan, which is that the ultimate solution is political and economic, not military. That means considering approaches that don't rely on major troop escalation. The question of whether the Karzai regime can be an effective partner is critical: Without a legitimate partner on the ground, no strategy predicated on keeping the Taliban from coming back to power can work. Withholding additional forces that Karzai needs to prop up his government may be the only way to ensure that the Afghan leader makes real effort to fix his corrupt and ineffectual government, as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry reportedly argued to the president last week. That's one reason why escalation can't be a fait accompli, and troops need to be at the center of the debate.

Similarly, no amount of additional military force will work without commensurate efforts on the civilian and development side, but thus far it's not at all apparent that those efforts are forthcoming. Sending more troops without appropriate civilian resources, or at the expense of those resources, will likely be a futile effort.

There is also the question of Pakistan. Officials there and some U.S. experts worry that more troops will drive Taliban insurgents into Afghanistan's nuclear neighbor, further destabilizing a country that is arguably more important to American interests, especially since al-Qaeda has essentially been defeated in Afghanistan. This possibility should also bear on the decision of whether to send more troops to the conflict.

Domestically, many Democrats in Congress, including House Appropriations Committee Chair David Obey, aren't going to be impressed with any plan that involves them spending a billion dollars per 1,000 troops per year, especially during a recession and a stretched budget. Despite the fact that the Powell doctrine -- that any U.S. war should be broadly supported and use every possible resource to achieve a decisive victory -- has fallen out of vogue in defense circles, policy-makers still need to address the fact that support for this effort is flagging at home. Obama should take that into account, too, as he decides whether more troops are necessary -- in particular, he should be able to explain how they come home as well as why they are going and what they are to do.

The president does have a choice to make about strategy in Afghanistan, and it is vital that he get it right -- and ask whether the assumptions that underpin it are true. Separating strategy from questions of resources and personnel undercuts the debate before it begins. The simple fact that both Americans and Afghans understand is that the war is over when American troops are no longer sent to Afghanistan. Obama has to figure out how, and when, that will happen.

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