Heads or tails, Obama loses
WASHINGTON - On the eighth anniversary of the launch of United States military
operations in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama spent a good part of
Wednesday deliberating with his top advisers on what is likely to be one of the
most momentous decisions of his tenure: the future of US involvement in that
His military commanders on the ground, led by General Stanley McChrystal and
the head of the US Central Command (Centcom), General David Petraeus, are
reportedly urging Obama to increase the number of troops deployed to
Afghanistan from the current 68,000 to over 100,000 as part of a comprehensive
"counter-insurgency" (COIN) strategy.
They and their supporters, both within and outside the administration, have
been arguing for weeks that the Taliban's resurgence can only be defeated by a
major infusion of US combat troops and the implementation of a new strategy focused on securing the
population and providing it with essential services.
But some of Obama's civilian advisers, notably led by Vice President Joseph
Biden, are urging a less ambitious "counter-terrorism" (CT) strategy that would
maintain US troop strength at current levels while stepping up Predator drone
strikes and special forces operations targeted at key Taliban leaders and their
al-Qaeda allies both in Afghanistan and in their safe havens in neighboring
The CT advocates argue that increasing the number of US troops could have a
counter-productive impact on public opinion in Afghanistan, especially among
Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group, from which the Taliban recruits
its foot soldiers. The US military mission in Afghanistan should increasingly
be devoted to training and building the country's national army and police
force, in their view.
They also argue that the billions of dollars required to finance a major US
troop build-up could be put to more effective use in persuading nuclear-armed
Pakistan, and particularly its powerful army, to cooperate more closely with
Washington's CT efforts and to act more aggressively against its own Taliban
insurgency, which is believed to harbor top al-Qaeda figures.
Apart from ruling out any substantial drawdown in US troop levels in
Afghanistan - which he did during a meeting with senior Democratic and
Republican lawmakers on Tuesday - Obama has not yet tipped his hand.
His Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Obama's special representative to
Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak), Richard Holbrooke, are believed to lean
somewhat more in favor of the COIN strategy, while Defense Secretary Robert
Gates, who many analysts believe could turn out to be the single most
influential voice in the debate, has characteristically kept his cards very
close to his chest.
At the same time, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a former congressman
who is particularly sensitive to growing Democratic concern on Capitol Hill
that Afghanistan could turn into a Vietnam-like quagmire, is reportedly leaning
toward Biden's view, as is Obama's increasingly influential deputy national security adviser, Thomas Donilon. Donilon's boss, General Jim Jones, has
reportedly acted primarily as an honest broker.
Republicans, led by their failed presidential candidate, Senator John McCain,
have strongly backed McChrystal, whose bleak analysis of the current situation
in Afghanistan and recommendation for a major troop increase, was leaked to the
Washington Post last month. Since then, McCain and other hawks have repeatedly
pressed Obama to urgently grant whatever the military formally requests. "Time
is not on our side," he reportedly told Obama during Tuesday's meeting.
With some exceptions, the Democratic leadership in Congress is much more wary
and has become increasingly vocal in their skepticism about the COIN approach
since the leak, which many Democratic lawmakers saw as an attempt by McChrystal
and Petraeus to force Obama to accept their recommendation.
The public case against the new COIN approach has also been bolstered as
details have emerged about the widespread fraud committed on behalf of Afghan
President Hamid Karzai in the August 20 elections. Karzai, whose government was
already seen as increasingly corrupt before the poll, is now being depicted as
an unreliable partner for the kind of comprehensive strategy envisaged by COIN
"[O]ne assumption of the proposed counterinsurgency plan is that our troops and
civilians will be working in partnership with a legitimate and reliable
government in Afghanistan," wrote Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, in the Wall Street Journal last week.
"After the deeply flawed presidential election last month, we must ask whether
we can succeed if our partner is weak and viewed with deep suspicion by his own
people," he noted.
Even some Democratic hawks, such as Michael O'Hanlon, a military-affairs expert
at the Brookings Institution who served in the White House under Bill Clinton
but subsequently supported key decisions by George W Bush during his so-called
"global war on terror", have cited the current Afghan government under Karzai
as a valid reason for skepticism.
"If there's any one lesson from Vietnam we should remember, it's that we need a
viable indigenous partner," he warned during a recent talk to a
neo-conservative group that strongly supports a major escalation. "We can do
everything right, and if our partner doesn't do its part, we're not going to
But the COIN advocates insist that Washington has no choice because, as they
ritually note, Obama himself called the Afghan war a "war of necessity", rather
than one of choice.
In an updated version of the Vietnam-era "domino theory", they argue that
Washington cannot afford to permit the Taliban, which they see as inextricably
tied to al-Qaeda, to return to power or even gain sway over substantial
portions of Afghanistan where they could provide al-Qaeda safe haven, because
the consequences would be regional, if not global.
"A Taliban conquest of Afghanistan would endanger the Pakistani regime at best,
create a regional crisis for certain and lead to a nuclear-armed al-Qaeda at
worst," according to David Brooks, an influential neo-conservative columnist at
the New York Times.
For their part, CT advocates do not see the Taliban as a monolithic force
forever linked to al-Qaeda. They also point to major successes in recent
missile attacks against key al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban operatives inside
Pakistan as strong evidence that Washington can effectively disrupt and
ultimately defeat al-Qaeda without putting more of its own troops on the
With Congress and his own advisers so deeply divided, most analysts here
believe that Obama will try to reconcile the two strategies by adopting
elements of both, including an increase in the number of troops, but not so
many as the 40,000 that McChrystal and Petraeus reportedly want. That would be
consistent with his decision last March to approve the deployment of an
additional 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan out of the 30,000 requested by
the military brass.
But both COIN and CT advocates agree that such an approach will likely lead to
serious political problems, not so different from those confronted by president
Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.
"Half-measures is what I worry about," McCain said after Tuesday's meeting.
"[They can] lead to failure over time and an erosion of American public
"It's the worst of a set of bad options," wrote Stephen Walt, a prominent
international relations scholar at Harvard University, on his blog at
"If things eventually go south [as I believe they will], he'll get blamed for
not giving the commanders enough to do the job and for incurring additional
costs to no good purpose. Yet this approach also means he won't get the credit
for taking a bold decision to cut our losses and get out," Walt wrote.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.