Two questions Obama must ask before sending more troops to Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Sept. 30 2009 6:17 PM

Two Questions Obama Must Ask Before Sending More Troops to Afghanistan

And how to judge the responses.

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Irritating Confidante

John Dickerson on Ben Bradlee’s fascinating relationship with John F. Kennedy.

My Father Invented Social Networking at a Girls’ Reform School in the 1930s

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The All The President’s Men Scene That Captured Ben Bradlee

Culturebox

The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here

I feel like a kid in some kind of store.

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

The Difference Between Being a Hero and an Altruist

How Punctual Are Germans?

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 12:44 AM We Need More Ben Bradlees His relationship with John F. Kennedy shows what’s missing from today’s Washington journalism.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
  Life
Quora
Oct. 22 2014 9:51 AM What Was It Like to Work at NASA During the Challenger and Columbia Disasters?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 10:00 AM On the Internet, Men Are Called Names. Women Are Stalked and Sexually Harassed.
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 22 2014 6:00 AM Why It’s OK to Ask People What They Do David Plotz talks to two junior staffers about the lessons of Working.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 9:54 AM The Simpsons World App Is Finally Here I feel like a kid in some kind of store.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 8:43 AM Thunderstruck: Rock Out With Mother Nature’s Evil Side
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 9:39 AM Gertjie and Lammie, a Magical (and Bizarre) Friendship
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.