War Stories

Two Questions Obama Must Ask Before Sending More Troops to Afghanistan

And how to judge the responses.

When President Barack Obama agreed to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan six months ago, he emphasized, “We will not blindly stay the course,” adding that we “will not, and cannot, provide a blank check.”

His rethinking of the whole business now may stem, in part, from a realization that a blind journey and a blank check are exactly what loom before him.

As senator, presidential candidate, and commander in chief, Obama has always stressed that his aims in Afghanistan were “limited”—not the ambitious and impractical vision of turning the place into a Western-style democracy (or, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates derided the notion, “a central Asian Valhalla”) but rather a hard-core campaign of disrupting and defeating the Taliban and preventing al-Qaida from using the country as a “safe haven” for global terrorism once again.

It may be (I don’t know for sure, and I doubt anyone on the outside has any great insight on the matter) that Obama has only recently come to understand that, according to classic counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine, his “limited aims” cannot be accomplished by limited means; that simply chasing insurgents from one hillside or valley to another isn’t going to turn the tide; that COIN, if it has much chance of success, requires an ambitious agenda of nation-building, a strategy—and enough troops and resources—to protect the Afghan people so that their government can supply justice and basic services, which will in turn inculcate popular loyalty to the government and thus dry up support for the insurgents.

And so, not unreasonably, the president is taking another look at whether counterinsurgency is the way to go. There are two key questions he might (or should, anyway) be asking:

First, is Afghan President Hamid Karzai likely to rally the support of his own people, especially given the massive fraud in the recent election? (If he doesn’t rally this support, counterinsurgency is doomed to fail; this, the top U.S. military leaders acknowledge.)

Second, given the vast amount of blood, treasure, and time that a COIN campaign requires under the best of circumstances, are the prospective benefits worth the cost?

Another way to ask that first question: Assuming Karzai is re-elected (all the ballots, including the phony ones, have not yet been counted), is there any way that the United States and NATO can prod him to take steps that might broaden his legitimacy and regain the Afghan people’s trust?

There might be one way: benchmarks.

Back in mid-2007, the George W. Bush administration came up with 18 benchmarks for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to meet. Congress, in requiring Bush to file regular progress reports on the issue, declared that U.S. strategy in Iraq—including decisions on whether to add or withdraw forces—”shall be conditioned on the Iraqi government meeting” those benchmarks.

It was a good idea. The “surge” that Bush had ordered earlier in the year was designed to give the Iraqi political factions breathing space to get their act together; the benchmarks would measure how far they’d come along. The benchmarks included passing legislation to ensure equitable distribution of oil revenue, disarming militias, and de-Baathification reform, as well as increasing the number of Iraqi security forces capable of operating independently.

The problem was that Bush never enforced the benchmarks, never tied U.S. action to Iraqi compliance. The first report, in July 2007, concluded that the Iraqis had not made “satisfactory progress” toward meeting even half the benchmarks. But Bush did nothing to step up incentives; he never inflicted any punishments or rewards.

Similar benchmarks could be devised for Karzai’s second term (again, assuming he’s re-elected). They might include measures to bring the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, and his followers into the government; throwing out especially corrupt ministers and regional governors; and easing the path for the Western allies to build roads, supply basic services, and provide aid for farmers to grow crops other than poppies.

The idea would be this: Whether we send more troops and prolong this war depends on whether Karzai meets, or makes real progress toward, these benchmarks. This wouldn’t be some merely moral exercise; it’s simply realistic; it’s based on the premise that U.S. and NATO military forces can’t really accomplish much if he doesn’t make real progress—doesn’t initiate the reforms that would attract more popular favor, support, and legitimacy.

However, there is a more basic question to consider (and Obama is reportedly weighing it as well): Is this war worth fighting, period?

The smartest assessment of this question that I’ve read is Stephen Biddle’s Sept. 16 testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee. Biddle is a military specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, former chair of the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College, and a consultant to recent official reviews on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Biddle calls the question of whether the war is worthwhile “a close call on the merits,” not exactly a ringing endorsement. “For me,” he concludes, “the balance of costs and risks suggests a war that is worth waging, but only barely.” Others, he allows, may reasonably calculate the balance differently.

The most common rationale for war, which happens to be President Obama’s—the need to destroy all traces of those who launched the attacks of Sept. 11—is also the least tenable, Biddle writes. As top generals concede, al-Qaida no longer has a presence in Afghanistan, and other unstable countries (Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan, among others) could offer Osama Bin Laden more secure “safe havens.” We could send troops to those places, too, but, as Biddle notes, “we would run out of brigades long before bin Laden runs out of prospective sanctuaries.”

The one plausible nightmare scenario that could threaten U.S. interests, he says, concerns the stability not so much of Afghanistan but of its neighbors, especially Pakistan. If the United States withdrew, and the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan, al-Qaida—whose fighters are currently perched along the Af-Pak border in the frontier territories—would have much more freedom of movement, a much larger base of training, supplying, and staging for cross-border operations, which could threaten, and eventually topple, the secular government of Pakistan and thus hand over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal to Islamist terrorists.

Even this danger, Biddle says, “should not be exaggerated.” The connection between “U.S. withdraws” and “al-Qaida captures Pakistan and its nukes” is hardly certain; there are many in-between points along this line, each with its own set of probabilities. Finally, even if Western troops did help stabilize Afghanistan, Pakistan may fall apart anyway. Still, to Biddle, the danger is real and large enough to justify staying in the war.

He admits the costs are bound to be great, the casualties considerable, and the chance of success far from certain. But he makes a case that the prospects are hardly hopeless and that, to his mind, they’re worth the risk.

Obama may calculate the risks and benefits differently. (Vice President Joe Biden apparently does.) He may decide that the risks are too great and the benefits too slight to justify the open-ended commitment that an all-out counterinsurgency campaign would entail.

Several columnists, hawkish analysts, and military officers have put out the word that Obama has two choices: go all the way in or get out. The motive here is to get Obama to go all the way in, since it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll withdraw completely. However, it may be that a more modest goal can be accomplished, though less efficiently, by some option in between. The military commanders owe it to the president to come up with such options, spelling out their risks and benefits as well.

Also contrary to the pushers, there’s no rush on any of this. The Afghan election has not been settled. There may be a run-off contest. Nothing can be done, in any event, until the Afghan president takes actions that demonstrate he’s worth supporting—by his own people, much less by ours.