What do they talk about in all those Afghanistan strategy sessions?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 12 2009 4:30 PM

Obama's Real Afghanistan Decision

It's not how many troops to send; it's what those troops will do.

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan

Eight months and eight national-security meetings after announcing a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan and sending the first wave of additional troops, President Barack Obama stands on the verge of deciding whether that strategy was right and how many, if any, more soldiers to send.

Why has he taken so long, and what did he and his advisers discuss in all those meetings that each went on for hours? Obama hinted at some of the answers in an interview this week with ABC News' Jake Tapper.

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Tapper asked the president why he didn't simply accept the recommendation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to deploy 40,000 more troops.

Obama replied that he'd asked McChrystal, other commanders, and civilian specialists "a lot of questions" in order to avoid "a situation in which we resource something based on faulty premises." He added, "I wanted to make sure that we have tested all the assumptions that we're making before we send young men and women into harm's way."

The first of these assumptions, he said, is that sending more troops really would reduce al-Qaida's ability "to attack the U.S. homeland."

It is, of course, this assumption that makes Americans at all interested in the fate of Afghanistan. The main rationale for staying in the war has always been that if Kabul fell to the Taliban, al-Qaida terrorists would once again move in and use the country as a "sanctuary" or "safe haven" from which to plan attacks on the United States, as they did on Sept. 11, 2001.

However, this theory isn't as airtight as it may seem. Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security—as well as a former special-operations officer and an ambivalent advocate of sending more troops to Afghanistan—doubts the whole concept of a "safe haven." Al-Qaida or other anti-American terrorists could organize attacks right now in Somalia, Sudan, the northwestern frontier of Pakistan—or, for that matter, in certain neighborhoods of Paris, London, or New York City—so, it's worth asking, does securing Afghanistan make us any safer?

Similarly, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who "only barely" supports escalating the war, argues that 9/11 is the weakest rationale for such a policy; that the real threat is the impact that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan might have on the security of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

One could make a case that this concern alone justifies sending more troops, but it's a tough case to make politically. Could, or should, any president argue for escalating a war—spending hundreds of billions of dollars and losing possibly thousands of American lives—on a hunch about a hypothesis? (Even Biddle acknowledges that the causal link between Afghanistan falling and al-Qaida taking over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is far from direct or certain.)

But if Obama sends fewer troops than his commanders want, and if we're then attacked by terrorists again, he will be blamed—perhaps appropriately, perhaps not.

Another assumption Obama said he wanted to test is that sending more troops would enhance "the prospects of a functioning Afghan government" and that the Afghan military and police wind up "carrying the burden of their own security."

This test strikes at the core of counterinsurgency strategy, which Obama endorsed (sort of, in theory) last March and which McChrystal now says he needs 40,000 more troops to implement.

Counterinsurgency involves protecting the local population from insurgency groups, so that the national government is better able to provide basic services, thus winning popular support and undermining the insurgents' appeal. If the government is particularly corrupt or incompetent, it won't be able to build on the security wrought by a good counterinsurgency campaign, thus nullifying our success and sacrifice.