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?