Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies.

Military analysis.
March 24 2009 6:17 PM

CT or COIN?

Obama must choose this week between two radically different Afghanistan policies.

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

With just a week until President Barack Obama flies to Strasbourg, France, for his first NATO conference, his top advisers are still divided over what U.S. policy should be on the summit's No. 1 issue: how to fight the war in Afghanistan.

It's a debate that the Bush administration never seriously had in the seven years following the post-9/11 invasion. Now, by contrast, in the wake of three major strategic reviews, Obama is extending and deepening the discussion of Afghanistan, because the outcome of this debate may set the course of American foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency.

In the first days of his term, Obama placed strict limits on the war's objectives, shedding Bush's utopian rhetoric about turning Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy and focusing instead on merely keeping the place from reverting to a haven for global terrorists. But though he may initially have thought otherwise, this didn't settle questions of military strategy: how many troops should be deployed, what they should do when they get there, and how victory or defeat will be measured and appraised. This is what the debate inside the White House is about.

According to close observers, the key debate in the White House is whether the United States and NATO should wage a counterinsurgency campaign—securing the Afghan population, helping to provide basic services, and thus strengthening support for the government—or whether we should devote most of our resources to going after al-Qaida terrorists directly. Obviously, any plan will wind up doing at least a bit of both; the debate is over priorities and emphasis.

The advocates for a more purely counterterrorist (or CT) approach—led forcefully by Vice President Joe Biden—point out that, after all, we're in Afghanistan only because of al-Qaida and therefore we should focus on that threat and leave the rest to the Afghans. Yes, we should offer them aid and assistance, but neither their economic development nor the survival of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's regime should be what our troops are fighting and dying for.

The counterinsurgency (or COIN) advocates argue that only through their approach can al-Qaida and the Taliban be defeated. Hunting and killing terrorists has its place, but in the long run it only gives the enemy the initiative, lets them melt away into the landscape, and does little to stop new recruits from taking their place. The best way to keep al-Qaida at bay is to dry up its support by earning the trust of the civilian population, building roads, creating jobs, and striking power-sharing deals with tribal elders.

Some in the CT camp realize that the COIN-dinistas (as critics call them) have a point. Their real gripe with counterinsurgency is that it costs too much and promises too little. Even most COIN strategists acknowledge that a successful campaign, especially in Afghanistan, would require lots of troops (way more than President Obama has committed so far), lots of time (a decade or so), and lots of money (wiping out most or all of the savings achieved by the withdrawal from Iraq)—and even then the insurgents might still win.

A "targeted" CT campaign, its advocates say, would at least demonstrate the West's resolve in the war on terrorism and keep al-Qaida jihadists contained. It's a type of fighting that we know how to do, and its effects are measurable. One might also argue (I don't know if anyone on the inside is doing so) that it could serve as a holding action—a way of keeping Afghanistan from plunging deeper into chaos—while we focus more intently on diplomatic measures to stabilize neighboring Pakistan. If Pakistan blows up, curing Afghanistan of its problems will be irrelevant and, in any case, impossible.

Some in the COIN camp have sympathy for this argument—especially for the part about the high cost and the uncertainty of success—but they would argue back that a purely CT approach is sure to fail in the long run.

In short, it's a messy plate that President Obama's been handed, and his advisers' debate only highlights the dearth of good choices and the real chance that things might get still worse, no matter what he does. He scaled back the war's objectives, but the task is daunting all the same.

Obama has to choose one approach or the other this week, if he hasn't done so already. Afghanistan will fill the agenda at next week's NATO conference. He has said that he'll ask the allies to step up their involvement. But he can't expect them to accede unless he requests specific measures and explains how they fit into a clear strategic context, and he can't do that unless he decides what the strategy is.

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