Obama’s Real Afghanistan Decision

It’s not how many troops to send; it’s what those troops will do.

A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan

Eight months and eight national-security meetings after announcing a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan and sending the first wave of additional troops, President Barack Obama stands on the verge of deciding whether that strategy was right and how many, if any, more soldiers to send.

Why has he taken so long, and what did he and his advisers discuss in all those meetings that each went on for hours? Obama hinted at some of the answers in an interview this week with ABC News’ Jake Tapper.

Tapper asked the president why he didn’t simply accept the recommendation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to deploy 40,000 more troops.

Obama replied that he’d asked McChrystal, other commanders, and civilian specialists “a lot of questions” in order to avoid “a situation in which we resource something based on faulty premises.” He added, “I wanted to make sure that we have tested all the assumptions that we’re making before we send young men and women into harm’s way.”

The first of these assumptions, he said, is that sending more troops really would reduce al-Qaida’s ability “to attack the U.S. homeland.”

It is, of course, this assumption that makes Americans at all interested in the fate of Afghanistan. The main rationale for staying in the war has always been that if Kabul fell to the Taliban, al-Qaida terrorists would once again move in and use the country as a “sanctuary” or “safe haven” from which to plan attacks on the United States, as they did on Sept. 11, 2001.

However, this theory isn’t as airtight as it may seem. Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist at the Center for a New American Security—as well as a former special-operations officer and an ambivalent advocate of sending more troops to Afghanistan—doubts the whole concept of a “safe haven.” Al-Qaida or other anti-American terrorists could organize attacks right now in Somalia, Sudan, the northwestern frontier of Pakistan—or, for that matter, in certain neighborhoods of Paris, London, or New York City—so, it’s worth asking, does securing Afghanistan make us any safer?

Similarly, Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who “only barely” supports escalating the war, argues that 9/11 is the weakest rationale for such a policy; that the real threat is the impact that a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan might have on the security of nuclear-armed Pakistan.

One could make a case that this concern alone justifies sending more troops, but it’s a tough case to make politically. Could, or should, any president argue for escalating a war—spending hundreds of billions of dollars and losing possibly thousands of American lives—on a hunch about a hypothesis? (Even Biddle acknowledges that the causal link between Afghanistan falling and al-Qaida taking over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is far from direct or certain.)

But if Obama sends fewer troops than his commanders want, and if we’re then attacked by terrorists again, he will be blamed—perhaps appropriately, perhaps not.

Another assumption Obama said he wanted to test is that sending more troops would enhance “the prospects of a functioning Afghan government” and that the Afghan military and police wind up “carrying the burden of their own security.”

This test strikes at the core of counterinsurgency strategy, which Obama endorsed (sort of, in theory) last March and which McChrystal now says he needs 40,000 more troops to implement.

Counterinsurgency involves protecting the local population from insurgency groups, so that the national government is better able to provide basic services, thus winning popular support and undermining the insurgents’ appeal. If the government is particularly corrupt or incompetent, it won’t be able to build on the security wrought by a good counterinsurgency campaign, thus nullifying our success and sacrifice.

For this reason, Obama has expressed deep concerns over the fact that Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime is riddled with corruption. So, to varying degrees, have Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as well as McChrystal and Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command.

In the past week, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, sent two classified cables to Obama, urging him not to send more troops until Karzai has cleaned up his act. Eikenberry’s views were debated at this week’s national security meeting and may have prodded Obama to demand that his commanders re- gauge their memo on military options to include estimates not only on how many troops and how much money each option would require but also on an exit strategy—how long it might take for the Afghan forces to provide security on their own.

It may be impossible to make such a prediction, but that might only heighten suspicions that counterinsurgency is futile from the get-go.

Some advocates of the strategy have cautioned that counterinsurgency campaigns take years, even decades, to bear fruit. In his interview with ABC’s Tapper, Obama emphasized that he has no interest in buying into that sort of campaign. We are not looking “at an indefinite stay” or a “permanent protectorate,” he said. “That, I think, would be unsustainable.” And earlier in the interview he said that, “whatever investments we make,” he’s obligated to make sure that they are “sustainable.”

In the meantime, Obama told Tapper that he and his advisers “are identifying not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now.”

This suggests that Obama is seeking ways to go around the central government—striking separate deals with provincial leaders or providing more or less intensive levels of support—if Karzai proves to be a feeble partner in our counterinsurgency campaign. Or it might suggest one way to exert leverage over Karzai—to make clear that we will empower regional players, and thus weaken his own standing, if he doesn’t clean up his act, thus making his regime more legitimate in the eyes of his people and therefore better able to beat the Taliban in the competition for hearts and minds.

None of Obama’s remarks foretell what he will decide. His aides insist that he hasn’t yet made up his mind on the big questions about Afghanistan and that all news reports to the contrary are untrue.

The point, though, is that, contrary to the media’s incessant focus on numbers, this has never been a decision primarily about troop levels. Last summer, retired Gen. Colin Powell advised Obama that the key question was not how many troops to send but what those troops should do—and that this was primarily his decision, not some general’s. Obama seems to be following that advice.

The military commanders have reportedly put four options on the table. News stories have emphasized how many more troops each option entails, ranging from 10,000 to 40,000. (Some accounts have put the highest requests at 44,000 or even 80,000, though it’s widely assumed that those numbers are way out of line and may, in fact, have been put there simply to make 40,000—McChrystal’s real desire—seem like a middle course.)

But all these numbers merely reflect the real, underlying set of options, which concern, as Powell put it, what we should be doing in Afghanistan—what we can do, what we can’t, what we should try, what we shouldn’t bother trying, and the risks of doing or not doing each one.

That’s what the drawn-out discussions have been about, that’s (in part) why it’s taken so much time. According to some officials, after each of the eight sessions, Obama has been dissatisfied with the answers at some level and has hammered them to bring back more detail the next time—on the state of the Afghan army, on the impact that various deployments would have on the state of the U.S. Army, on a province-by-province breakdown of Afghan politics and security. All these questions directly, even crucially, affect calculations of acceptable risk or clear futility—the chances of success or failure.

In his ABC interview, the president said he’s now satisfied “there’s not an important question out there that has not been asked and that we haven’t answered to the best of our abilities,” and, as a result of this process, he will feel “much more confident” about whatever orders he ends up issuing.

Obama may have inherited this war, but it’s about to become his war and his alone. The least we can allow him is a sense of confidence in his first crucial judgment. Then, as he must know, the fight on all fronts begins.