The Options Debate over Afghanistan

During the past week, General Stanley McChrystal’s leaked redacted report on his needs for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan has sparked an increasingly public debate about where US policy should be heading. One fascinating aspect of this debate surrounds the leaking of the McChrystal recommendations to Washington Post analyst Bob Woodward: who did it? and why? The other, and far more consequential aspect is the shape and outcome of the substantive debate: what should America do?

The first aspect is purely speculative. The logical source of a copy of the report is straight from the horse’s mouth, which is the Afghanistan command and McChrystal. If the general or his staff leaked the redacted report (which the fact of redaction makes one suspicious was the case), then the motivation would probably have been to force a favorable response from the administration to his requests. McChrystal’s speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) was a further example of this kind of advocacy, and while it is  certainly proper for a general to make his case as forcefully as possible, the general press is not exactly the chain of command through which such requests normally proceed. If McChrystal or his staff leaked the report, they should be in a world of trouble. The other possibility is that someone within the administration who opposes the increased force levels contained in the report leaked it to incite opposition, trying to influence the outcome in the other direction. In either case, the effect (and probable intention) was to restrict or prejudice the President’s options. The President must be furious over all this, and some heads should get lopped off as a result.

There are now two future visions on the table. On the one hand is McChrystal’s. His position is that unless there are substantially more troops devoted to Afghanistan, the COIN effort will fail and the Taliban and their Al Qaeda associates will prevail. The general does not say that with the additional troops, reportedly about 40,000, that the effort will succeed (which as pointed in this space his own doctrine says it will not) if troops are allocated, only that it will fail if he does not get the reinforcements. The added forces would, as numerous observers have pointed out, swell US and NATO forces to about the same numbers the Soviets deployed in the 1980s with less than great success. McChrystal would maintain that they were there under the wrong doctrine, trying to forcibly subdue the Afghans rather than battling for their loyalty. We will see.

The other image is the Biden approach. The Vice President believes that more troops will not materially help the situation and that a change in sgtrategy is called for. Biden wants to see a reduction in American forces in theater, and a reorientation of the American effort away from the Taliban and toward Al Qaeda. To do so, he wants to place emphasis on clandestine activities by Special Forces and the use of drone and other aircraft to bomb Al Qaeda into submission, while US forces emphasize training the Afghan forces (army and police). For this to work, of course, a transformation of the first order must occur within the Afghan system itself, as the promotion of good government is part of the package.

There is, of course, a good bit of room between these two positions. The president has the additional choices of increasing troop strength less than McChrystal wants, not at all, or reducing it less than Biden proposes. One of these may prove politically more palatable to the White House. Freezing or reducing troops would bring howls from the Republicans, and accepting the McChrystal recommendations will be opposed very vocally by Democrats. One could hardly blame the president for concluding that he cannot win in all this.

History, notably the Vietnam experience, suggests a decision somewhere between the extremes. In that war, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon both consistently chose an incremental option over a potentially decisive option that could go in either direction. The result was never decisive but bought time that never seemed to get invested adequately in an acceptable outcome.  Are we headed in the same direction again?

What option the president should choose requires looking very carefully at what the intended ultimate outcome, the better state of the peace (BSOP), is and what actions (strategies) will best achieve those ends, as the posts of the last two weeks have suggested. I have not seen the discussion phrased this way. McChrystal’s ringing plea is “Send troops so we don’t lose.” Lose what? Biden’s is “withdraw troops and concentrate on Al Qaeda.” Will that produce the outcome we want? I’d sure like to see the discussion rephrased in these kinds of terms. Wouldn’t you?

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2 Responses to “The Options Debate over Afghanistan”

  1. william bilek, m.d. Says:

    I couldn’t say it better than the following article but it accurately reflects my thoughts.

    WE’VE LOST THE WAR: RECALL THE TROOPS
    Tarek Fatah
    National Post, September 17, 2009
    Eight years after 9/11 and over a trillion dollars later, with tens of thousands dead and Iraq and Afghanistan devastated, it is time to come to terms with the writing on the wall: We have lost the war. The Islamist jihadis have won it. We must acknowledge defeat and bring our troops home.
    In a war between those who desire death and those who treasure their RRSPs and IRAs, the outcome is predictable. Canadian soldiers are professional, but mission-less armies have never fared well on the battlefield. American soldiers, who enlist primarily with the objective of obtaining a college degree, will never be able to defeat their counterparts, who view their freshman year as starting in paradise on the banks of rivers of milk and honey surrounded by 72 virgins.
    There were times when the West faced tyrants with vigour and bravery, ready to sacrifice its sons so that freedom and equality would not be compromised…. Today, only 130 men have died, but Canadians are reacting as if it were 130,000. A people unwilling to make sacrifices do not deserve to fight wars, let alone win them….
    Today we lie at the mercy of the Taliban on one hand and are threatened by the infiltration of extremist Islamists at all levels of government and civic society in the U. K., U. S. and Canada on the other. The great Anglo-Saxon alliance that helped defeat the Nazi war machinery in less than four years is abandoning the battle ground of ideas, quietly surrendering its own heritage of European Enlightenment, secular liberal democracy and universal human rights to the seemingly harmless doctrine of post-modernist multiculturalism that has embraced Islamism.
    Today, as British troops fight the Islamist jihadis in Helmand province, one of their own Cabinet Ministers, Shahid Malik, makes the public claim that within five years, Britain will have 16 Muslim MPs, and within 30 years, the country will have a Muslim Prime Minister. In the U. S., a bumbling President who knows the threat of Islamism and the Muslim Brotherhood ideology very well still bends over backwards and welcomes the bearers of this doctrine into his inner circle….
    Today we are fighting Islamist jihad-ism, yet neither Obama nor the British PM nor Harper or Ignatieff dare utter one word against the ideology that attacked us all on 9/11. So what is this war for?…
    What is our professional Canadian army doing in Afghanistan if Obama is reaching out to accommodate the very ideology that created the Taliban and al-Qaeda? This is insanity. Bring back our troops, not because I do not wish to inflict a defeat on the jihadis, but because we are being betrayed by NATO and the U. S., who sent them there….
    This sham must end. So long as we remain unwilling to challenge the ideology of jihad, let us admit defeat and retreat.

  2. wow that was amazing and i agree with you americans!!!

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