One thing is clear about President Barack Obama's M.O. on policy, domestic and foreign: He likes taking the middle course.
The conventional wisdom on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is that there is no middle course—that Obama must get all-in or all-out.
Many of those who recite this line are trying to box the president in to escalating the war. Neither Obama nor any of his advisers is advocating an outright withdrawal. Therefore, this logic would dictate, he has no choice but to follow the urgings of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his commander on the ground, and send in 40,000 more troops, on top of the 68,000 that we have there already.
But there may be a middle ground: a way to accomplish the aims of a counterinsurgency strategy—Gen. McChrystal's preferred approach—but with fewer troops than he'd ideally like to have on hand.
The principle of counterinsurgency is to focus much more on protecting the population than on chasing and killing terrorist-insurgents. The theory is that if NATO and Afghan forces can provide security (and thus facilitate the supply of basic services), the Afghan people will shift their loyalty to their government and thus dry up the Taliban's base of support.
The problem is that protecting all of Afghanistan, or even all the areas that the Taliban now threaten or dominate, would require many more troops than even McChrystal is requesting—by some estimates as many as 500,000 troops. Under these circumstances, if Obama agreed to send 40,000 more troops next month, it's a safe bet that the generals would request another 40,000 next year.
An alternative approach, then, is to protect not all of Afghanistan but just a few of its largest cities—say, Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni—and to throw at them all the resources they can absorb: military, civilian, financial, the works.
The purpose of this would be twofold.
The first would be to prevent the Taliban from taking over the central government, which is the main reason for having Western troops there at all.
The second would be to create "demonstration zones" for the eyes of Afghans all over the country. If these zones really can be secured and supplied, if they are seen as enclaves of relative peace and prosperity, then Afghans everywhere will want the same thing and reject the Taliban (whose strength today stems less from their fundamentalist ideology than from their ability to provide order and services).
Meanwhile, under this alternative approach, U.S. and NATO forces would keep training Afghan soldiers and police, while special-ops troops and air power would continue to take out "high-value targets" such as top Taliban fighters (even pure counterinsurgency advocates don't think counterterrorist tactics should be cut off completely).
It's hard to say how many more U.S. troops would be needed for this alternative approach—but almost certainly far fewer than 40,000.
Ideas along these lines are swirling around the community of scholars and soldiers who think about such matters. Mehar Omar Khan, a major in the Pakistani army and currently a student at the U.S. Army War College, outlined just such an approach in the latest issue of Small Wars Journal. Four specialists, including David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency veteran who advises several top U.S. officials and officers, make a similar case—which they call a "triage" or "enclave" strategy—in a recent paper published by the Center for a New American Security.
An enclave strategy also happens to fit in nicely with President Obama's proclivity for middle options. Given the limits of our resources and the nature of Afghanistan, this particular middle option might be a way to get the most out of what we can manage.
One thing, though, which should be kept constantly in mind when considering what to do about this war: If Hamid Karzai is re-elected Afghan president, Obama has to pressure him hard to crack down on corruption and to institute serious reforms. Any U.S. military effort—not just an extra effort, but any effort at all—should be conditional on these reforms. As Gen. McChrystal put it in his famously leaked Aug. 30 memo, a counterinsurgency campaign can provide the needs of the Afghan people only "by, with, and through the Afghan government" (his italics). If the Afghan government is widely seen as illegitimate, Western soldiers fighting on its behalf can do little to make things good.