Several Afghan Strategies, None a Clear Choice

Published: September 30, 2009
Source New York Times

The president, vice president and an array of cabinet secretaries,

intelligence chiefs, generals, diplomats and advisers gathered in a

windowless basement room of the White House for three hours on

Wednesday to chart a new course in Afghanistan.
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The one thing everyone could agree on: None of the choices is easy.

Just six months after President Obama adopted what he called a

“stronger, smarter and comprehensive strategy” for Afghanistan and

Pakistan, he is back at the same table starting from scratch. The

choices available to him are both disparate and not particularly


He could stick with his March strategy, but his commander wants as

many as 40,000 more troops to make it work. He could go radically

in the other direction and embrace Vice President Joseph R. Biden

Jr.’s idea of using fewer troops, focused more on hunting down

leaders of Al Qaeda, but risk the collapse of the Afghan

government. Or he could search for some middle-ground option that

avoids the risks of the other two, but potentially find himself in

a quagmire.

“He’s doing what he has to do: before you make a decision, you

better scrub all your alternative options,” said Brett H. McGurk,

who worked on Afghanistan and Iraq at the National Security Council

under President George W. Bush and briefly under Mr. Obama. “I just

suspect they’ll find, like we found with Iraq, that it’s two

imperfect choices.”

At the heart of the decision is defining America’s strategic

interest in the region. Mr. Obama has called Afghanistan a “war of

necessity” to stop it from becoming a haven again for Al Qaeda to

attack America. The question is, how much danger is there and how

many lives can be lost and dollars spent to minimize it?

Stephen Biddle, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations who

has advised Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander in

Afghanistan, said the chances of a new Qaeda stronghold that could

threaten American territory was relatively low but that even a

small risk was a concern.

“It’s like buying life insurance for a 50-year-old,” Mr. Biddle

said. “The odds of a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America

are substantially less than 1 percent. And yet most Americans buy

life insurance.”

The meeting on Wednesday was one of five planned as the president

rethinks his approach in response to a dire report by General

McChrystal. The session was meant to review the worsening political

and security situation, while future meetings will examine options

in detail.

General McChrystal’s preferred option builds on the strategy

outlined by Mr. Obama in March with a substantial infusion of new

troops. The counterinsurgency strategy emphasized protecting

civilians over just engaging insurgents, restricting airstrikes to

reduce civilian casualties and sharply expanding the Afghan

security forces through accelerated training.

Most counterinsurgency specialists say a larger ground force is

needed to clear Taliban-held territory and hold it while

instructors train enough competent Afghan soldiers and police

officers, and Afghan leaders build an effective government.

“Without more troops, the insurgents can continue to maneuver

around us and set I.E.D.’s, which kill our people,” said Peter

Gilchrist, a retired British major general and a former senior

commander in Afghanistan, referring to improvised explosive


“There’s no question that more forces will buy more space and time,

and that will translate into an effort to get more Afghan police

into the hinterlands and more Afghan National Army soldiers through

training,” said Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the NATO commander in

Afghanistan until June 2008.

Critics argue that foreign forces have never pacified Afghanistan

and that more troops will only increase the perception of them

being occupiers. The result would be a long, drawn-out war with

many more American casualties. They say that though the Taliban are

ruthless, they do not pose a danger to America, while Al Qaeda,

which is a threat, is located primarily in Pakistan.

Moreover, widespread allegations of fraud in Afghanistan’s

presidential election have left the country’s leadership uncertain

and underscored that America does not have a partner in Kabul with

broad public legitimacy.

At the other end of the spectrum is Mr. Biden’s approach. Rather

than try to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban,

American forces would concentrate on eliminating the Qaeda

leadership, primarily in Pakistan, using Special Operations forces,

Predator missile strikes and other surgical tactics. The Americans

would also accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support

as they took the lead against the Taliban.

This counterterrorism strategy, as opposed to a counterinsurgency

strategy, is predicated on the theory that the real threat to

American national security lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Some

call this proposal the “Pakistan First” option.

“Pakistan is the critical focus, the greatest security risk for the

United States,” said Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts

and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “And all of this

exercise, after all, is about our security.”

Administration officials lately have been pointing to what they

call great success in working with Pakistani authorities to

decapitate Al Qaeda and other extremist cells.

Yet critics note that successful drone attacks require good

intelligence on the ground, something that may be lost without

enough forces. After Mr. Bush sent more troops to Iraq in early

2007, tips about enemy locations soared, a development some

attributed to a larger American presence.

Moreover, a greater reliance on air power could mean more civilian

deaths, making enemies of the very people American commanders are

trying to sway.

In between those two approaches is a menu of options not especially

satisfying to either side of the debate. Mr. Biddle estimates there

are about a half-dozen variants in this territory, from negotiating

a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban to paying off local


Most of these options envision roughly the same number of troops as

are in the country now or a smaller increase than General

McChrystal’s maximum request. With the reinforcements Mr. Obama

ordered earlier this year, the United States will have 68,000

troops on the ground this fall. The Pentagon still has a request

for another 10,000 that was deferred last spring.

Substantially expanding Afghan security forces would be critical.

Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who heads the Armed

Services Committee, has said that by 2012 the Afghan Army should be

increased to 240,000 troops from 92,000 and police forces to

160,000 officers from 84,000.

General McChrystal’s troop request, said one administration

official, offers alternatives requiring fewer than 40,000 more

troops. If the goal is recalibrated to secure Afghan cities but not

the countryside, then not as many more troops would be needed. And

if the goal is scaled back even further, then the additional 10,000

troops previously requested could be enough.

These ideas, though, may not be big enough to change the trajectory

of an effort that has muddled along for eight years. Critics on

both sides said the worst of all options would be some version of

staying the course.

“The middle options,” Mr. McGurk said, “are either high risk or

they’re status quo or they’re unworkable.”