Based on statements from various officials, it seems our preferred approach to Afghanistan — pulling out most U.S. military forces from that country and focusing on al-Qaida, which is not operating in Afghanistan and is unlikely to secure a “safe haven” in Afghanistan however the struggle there turns out, especially if the U.S. issues credible warnings — is perhaps the least-likely option to emerge from the drawn-out review President Barack Obama is undertaking.
At a meeting Tuesday with a bipartisan group of 30 congressional leaders, Obama stressed that removing U.S. military forces from Afghanistan is not on the table. Even the option Vice President Biden is said to prefer — focusing on anti-terrorist strikes with drones and special forces rather than on civilian protection and nation-building — contemplates leaving the approximately 68,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan there for the foreseeable future. Top officials believe withdrawing would give the Taliban and al-Qaida a huge moral victory, increase their standing among Muslims inclined to look favorably on jihad, increase their recruiting capabilities and lead to the re-establishment of Afghanistan as a safe haven for al-Qaida plotters.
We consider the latter much less likely. As for the moral victory, it would be considerably less dramatic if accompanied by a larger policy statement to the effect that the U.S. is interested in intervening only in areas where terrorist organizations pose a clear and present danger to the U.S. itself, as the Taliban, an indigenous Afghan organization (however despicable) does not.
Given that the administration is likely to maintain a considerable military force in Afghanistan, the president still has a wide range of options and a delicate political landscape in which to maneuver.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has proposed an ambitious classic counterinsurgency strategy premised on protecting civilians and building up the capability of the Afghan government to defeat the Taliban by itself. He is expected to request 30,000-40,000 additional troops to undertake this strategy.
However, conducting classic counterinsurgency usually takes years, even decades. In the few cases where a foreign force has successfully defended an indigenous government from a strong insurgency, the government in question has established a fair degree of legitimacy and the trust of at least most of the people. Especially in the wake of the fraud-ridden recent presidential election, it is doubtful the current Afghan government qualifies. Whether an additional 40,000 troops, even with an emphasis on nation-building and training Afghan troops, can restore credibility is an open question.
It is possible, however, that maintaining the status quo, even with a more refined strategy, or a smaller “surge” of troops, is a formula only for staving off an eventual defeat and a bigger blow to U.S. prestige and power.
Then there’s the political equation. A majority of Americans doubt a war in Afghanistan is worth the cost. This sentiment is more pronounced among Democrats. Going forward the president may have to rely on congressional Republicans, with whom he is at odds on most issues, for reliable support on the Afghan war.
President Obama, through his previous statements and actions, has built this box, in which all options have serious potential downsides, himself. Still we do not envy him the difficult decisions he must soon make.