When President Barack Obama agreed to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan six months ago, he emphasized, "We will not blindly stay the course," adding that we "will not, and cannot, provide a blank check."
His rethinking of the whole business now may stem, in part, from a realization that a blind journey and a blank check are exactly what loom before him.
As senator, presidential candidate, and commander in chief, Obama has always stressed that his aims in Afghanistan were "limited"—not the ambitious and impractical vision of turning the place into a Western-style democracy (or, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates derided the notion, "a central Asian Valhalla") but rather a hard-core campaign of disrupting and defeating the Taliban and preventing al-Qaida from using the country as a "safe haven" for global terrorism once again.
It may be (I don't know for sure, and I doubt anyone on the outside has any great insight on the matter) that Obama has only recently come to understand that, according to classic counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, his "limited aims" cannot be accomplished by limited means; that simply chasing insurgents from one hillside or valley to another isn't going to turn the tide; that COIN, if it has much chance of success, requires an ambitious agenda of nation-building, a strategy—and enough troops and resources—to protect the Afghan people so that their government can supply justice and basic services, which will in turn inculcate popular loyalty to the government and thus dry up support for the insurgents.
And so, not unreasonably, the president is taking another look at whether counterinsurgency is the way to go. There are two key questions he might (or should, anyway) be asking:
First, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai likely to rally the support of his own people, especially given the massive fraud in the recent election? (If he doesn't rally this support, counterinsurgency is doomed to fail; this, the top U.S. military leaders acknowledge.)
Second, given the vast amount of blood, treasure, and time that a COIN campaign requires under the best of circumstances, are the prospective benefits worth the cost?
Another way to ask that first question: Assuming Karzai is re-elected (all the ballots, including the phony ones, have not yet been counted), is there any way that the United States and NATO can prod him to take steps that might broaden his legitimacy and regain the Afghan people's trust?
There might be one way: benchmarks.
Back in mid-2007, the George W. Bush administration came up with 18 benchmarks for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet. Congress, in requiring Bush to file regular progress reports on the issue, declared that U.S. strategy in Iraq—including decisions on whether to add or withdraw forces—"shall be conditioned on the Iraqi government meeting" those benchmarks.
It was a good idea. The "surge" that Bush had ordered earlier in the year was designed to give the Iraqi political factions breathing space to get their act together; the benchmarks would measure how far they'd come along. The benchmarks included passing legislation to ensure equitable distribution of oil revenue, disarming militias, and de-Baathification reform, as well as increasing the number of Iraqi security forces capable of operating independently.
The problem was that Bush never enforced the benchmarks, never tied U.S. action to Iraqi compliance. The first report, in July 2007, concluded that the Iraqis had not made "satisfactory progress" toward meeting even half the benchmarks. But Bush did nothing to step up incentives; he never inflicted any punishments or rewards.