November 1, 2009  

Agonizing over Afghanistan

Ten weeks into his presidency, Barack Obama announced his “comprehensive strategy” for Afghanistan.

The president emphasized that the future of Afghanistan was inextricably linked with that of Pakistan, and that in turn the security of the U.S. was linked to the fates of both countries. Afghanistan “will see no end to the violence if insurgents move freely back and forth across the border,” Obama said.

The president’s strategy for Afghanistan required the U.S. and its allies to reverse Taliban gains in the region and to promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government.

Obama said that for six years, Afghanistan had been denied the resources it needed because they were diverted to the war in Iraq. “Now, that will change.” A push in military resources would go hand-in-hand with “a dramatic increase in our civilian effort” to advance security, opportunity and justice, he said, “not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces,” he said.

The plan, announced March 27, seemed clear: It was a fork in the road where Afghanistan, not Iraq, would become the priority. The goal would be to stabilize Afghanistan and give Afghans the incentives and support they need to reject the Taliban insurgents. That, unsurprisingly, was widely interpreted as setting the course for a counterinsurgency campaign.

And at the direction of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Afghanistan commander Gen. David McKiernan was replaced by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to implement the new strategy and who drafted a comprehensive outline of what would be needed to succeed in that campaign. It drew heavily on counterinsurgency tactics and would require, among other things, large numbers of additional boots on the ground.

The president’s strategy and the general’s assessment seemed well-matched. A bottom-up counterinsurgency operation aimed at winning the trust of local populations so that they ultimately could defy the Taliban. Decision made. Action plan delivered. Let’s roll.

Or, let’s keep talking.

Instead of following up his Afghanistan strategy announcement with a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the American public, the congressional Democrats and international allies, Obama spent the ensuing months testing the waters of public opinion and monitoring, with justified dismay, the woes of the Afghan presidential elections. He also has been lending his ear to those who see an alternative way for Afghanistan: A counterterrorism campaign that uses technology to surgically target Taliban and al-Qaida targets while keeping Americans at a safe distance.

The commander in chief now appears to be reframing his March 27 announcement as the starting point for debate from which ultimately consensus would be reached, rather than the decision point from which action would follow.

For those who saw it as the latter, it’s been a summer (and now fall) of frustration. Even European allies — most of whom have been extremely frugal in their offerings of military resources and even more reluctant to risk political careers over Afghanistan — have pushed for the American president to show them the way. Most European leaders know that their only chance of winning support to increase their country’s commitment to Afghanistan is if it’s done via the calling of Obama, a popular figure across Europe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s condition attached to the sending of 500 more British troops to Afghanistan, that other NATO allies also step up their numbers, was likely aimed not at fellow Europeans, but at America.

Obama will not be hurried, however. The new starting point for a strategy decision seems to be the Nov. 7 Afghan runoff election. Gates seemed to underscore the fact that this would indeed be a starting point at an Oct. 23 meeting of NATO ministers in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, when he said Obama was continuing to review strategy in Afghanistan and the U.S. administration would start considering specific options in a few weeks.

But though it was a mistake to announce a strategy and then debate its validity, it’s understandable that the White House wants more time to consider its options, neither of which is good.

A counterterrorism campaign may be less expensive in blood and treasure in the short term, but could prove more costly in the long term. Without good intelligence on the ground, the risk of killing innocents is higher when UAVs and standoff weapons are the weapons of choice. This type of warfare alone against Taliban-type insurgent warriors tends to spawn a cluster of new sworn enemies for each bad guy eradicated.

Not that counterinsurgency is a slam dunk. The Iraq surge model does not translate neatly over to Afghanistan, whose vast and diverse rural provinces are far more challenging to populate with troops on a meaningful scale compared with the urban, more centralized communities of Iraq.

And counterinsurgency can be a devilish long, arduous and unpredictable business. The administration cannot know with any certainty when the turning point might happen, which makes this option a political gamble.

The longer the White House continues to deliberate, however, the more difficult it becomes to convince Americans and their foreign allies that it is necessary to stay the course in Afghanistan and the more the president leaves himself open to accusations of failing to lead — of being “afraid to make a decision,” in former Vice President Dick Cheney’s words. And the longer the decision is put off, the more it looks to Afghans and to the enemy like we’re walking. That’s a most dangerous position to be in because abandoning Afghanistan is not an option.

The 44th president has a gift for speechmaking that is powerful and persuasive. Obama is Anthony to Bush’s Brutus: He has the oratory skill to call upon friends, countrymen — Europeans even — to lend him their ears. The irony is that thus far, this president has chosen not to use the one skill that would make the case for his decision — whatever that decision might be.