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).