Obama’s War Room Options

November 7th, 2009

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Originally published in National Journal.

In Washington, the Afghanistan debate boils down to two major strategic options: counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism.

Counterinsurgency is the “big war” approach aimed at fighting the Taliban. It encompasses the political strategy that Gen. Stanley McChrys- tal recommended when he wrote, “The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy.” This option would require, McChrystal says, at least 40,000 additional U.S. troops.

The risk is that a big increase in U.S. troops would provide more targets for the insurgency and bolster its members’ resistance to what they perceive as foreign occupation. Most of the violence in Afghanistan has been directed at U.S. forces.

Counter-terrorism is the “small war” approach aimed at defeating Al Qaeda. This option would concentrate on military targets in the Afghan and Pakistani border areas and would require little or no change in U.S. troop levels. The risk is that Taliban control might expand and eventually threaten the central government in Kabul.

What do the American people want to do? They really don’t know. In last month’s CNN/Opinion Research poll, the public said by 59 percent to 39 percent that they oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. That represents a pretty wide margin. An October NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found a closer split, with 47 percent in favor of “increasing troop levels in Afghanistan” and 43 percent opposed. In September, 51 percent had been opposed.

The NBC/WSJ poll asked about all of the major options in Afghanistan.

* Send 40,000 more troops to fight insurgents and protect the Afghan people? Split — 43 percent in favor, 49 percent opposed.

* Withdraw nearly all U.S. troops and focus on attacking Qaeda camps using unmanned aircraft and commando teams? Split evenly, 45 percent to 45 percent.

* Keep the same number of U.S. troops and focus on attacking Qaeda camps along the Pakistani border? Split — 46 percent in favor, 43 percent against.

* What about sending 10,000 more troops to fight insurgents in some areas and to train Afghanistan’s army and police? That middle-way option met with more public support — 55 percent in favor to 36 percent against.

Americans don’t see much difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. By 79 percent to 18 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken October 15-18, the public said that the United States should try to keep all elements of the Taliban out of power, even if some do not support terrorism against the United States.

The Obama strategy is likely to involve a modest increase in troops.

Americans seem fairly certain about one thing: Security is more important than nation-building. In the ABC News/Post poll, about two-thirds said that preventing the establishment of Qaeda bases and keeping the Taliban out of power are high priorities in Afghanistan. Only about one-third gave high priority to establishing a stable democratic government and promoting economic development there.

President Obama appears to have gotten the message. He seems to be leaning toward a middle-way approach aimed mainly at security objectives. The United States cannot be seen as fighting to protect the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The tainted election undermined the credibility of that government.

But it may not matter much, because the central government in Kabul has little control over the country. “We are more concerned with the credibility of the election than the Afghan people are,” said Andy Johnson, a former staff director of the Senate Intelligence Committee who is now the national security director at Third Way, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

“Most of Afghanistan that’s stable is under local control,” an American official told The Washington Post. Security depends on local forces and authorities. That’s why the Obama administration is seeking local allies. The Obama strategy is likely to involve a modest troop increase with a counterinsurgency strategy in the south, where the Taliban has deep roots, and a counter-terrorism approach in the north, where the Taliban is weaker.

What would victory in Afghanistan mean? “The marginalization of the terrorists so they are reduced to ineffectual status,” Johnson said. Achieving that would require the full cooperation of Pakistan, because Qaeda and Taliban extremists operate out of bases in Pakistani territory. The main reason the United States is fighting in Afghanistan may be to keep the Pakistanis fighting on their side of the border. They won’t fight unless we do.