War Stories

The White House Debates Afghanistan—Again

Should Obama withdraw a lot of troops or just a few; change the war strategy or stay the course?

Gen. David Petraeus

The White House debate over how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan next month is really a surrogate for a larger, more fractious debate over the wisdom and strategy of the war itself.

It marks a reopening of a crucial debate that occupied President Barack Obama’s national-security advisers for most of his first year in office. At the end of that year, after a series of 10 meetings with those advisers, Obama settled the argument by deciding to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan (in addition to the 70,000 already there). But he also announced that he’d start withdrawing some of those troops in July 2011. That deadline is next month (time flies!), and so the president must soon decide how many to pull out.

The New York Times reported this week that senior military officers, as well as top officials in the Pentagon and State Department, are arguing that the drawdown should be minimal—around 3,000 to 5,000 troops—while some advisers in the White House, including Vice President Joe Biden, are pushing for much steeper cuts.

But this dispute is about more than numbers. The initial debate, in the first few months of 2009, was whether to emphasize a strategy of counterinsurgency (COIN) or a strategy of counterterrorism (CT).

Under COIN theory, the most effective way to defeat insurgents is to focus less on chasing bad guys than on protecting the population—first clearing an area of insurgents (which does involve killing a lot of them), then holding the area with security forces, and finally building support for the host-nation government by bringing in basic services. The idea is to isolate the insurgents, undermine the basis of their popular support, and thus switch the people’s allegiance from supporting (or at least tolerating) the insurgency to supporting the government.

The CT advocates, on the other hand, argued that the COIN strategy takes too long, costs too much money, turns the United States into an occupation force, and, after all the time and trouble, may not work anyway. They proposed, instead, using drones and a relatively small number of special-operations commandos to kill the insurgents and thus keep the Taliban and other militant groups from retaking political power.

Many COIN advocates conceded, and still do concede, that their strategy is expensive and risky. But they also argue that the CT strategy alone won’t work; that troops on the ground—and lots of them—are needed to build trust among the local people, who, once the trust is established, will be more likely to tell the troops where the insurgents are. The hardest part of an insurgency war is not killing the bad guys but finding them—and while high-tech sensors do that to a considerable degree, human intelligence is crucial.

At the end of 2009, Obama sided with the COIN advocates. His decision to send another 30,000 troops was for the explicit purpose of carrying out a COIN strategy. (Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, had recommended between 40,000 and 80,000; but he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff assured Obama that they could do the job, at only slightly greater risk, with 30,000.)

The White House officials calling for a steep troop withdrawal are reportedly arguing that they’re not calling for a change in strategy. Rather, they say, recent developments allow us to pursue the same strategy with far fewer troops.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has publicly said that it’s premature to make major withdrawals at this point, warning that doing so would threaten to reverse the gains we’ve made in the last year. Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is thought to be on the same page as Gates, but he has not yet sent the president his recommendations, or list of options, on the subject. When he does (any day now), the debate inside the National Security Council will begin in full force.

Meanwhile, President Obama seems to be leaning toward the position of the White House aides, telling a TV interviewer on June 7, “By us killing Osama Bin Laden, getting al-Qaida back on its heels, stabilizing much of the country in Afghanistan so that the Taliban can’t take it over … it’s now time for us to recognize that we’ve accomplished a big chunk of our mission and that it’s time for Afghans to take more responsibility.”

This argument is a bit of an evasion. Killing Bin Laden, while immensely important, has not yet affected the insurgent groups that had scant affiliation with al-Qaida in the first place. Though Afghanistan is more stable than it was a year ago, most military and intelligence officials say it would likely not remain so for very long after a major U.S. withdrawal. And the question of whether we’ve accomplished “a big chunk of our mission” depends on what you think our mission is.

If the mission is strictly to erode al-Qaida’s position in Afghanistan, then Obama shouldn’t have sent the extra 30,000 troops to begin with; al-Qaida hasn’t had more than a few hundred fighters in Afghanistan for several years. If the mission is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists in the future, and if part of that goal involves leaving behind an Afghan army that can defend the country and an Afghan government that its people view as legitimate and worthy of active support, then, no, we’re not there yet.

A more honest reason for pulling out large numbers of troops (10,000 or more) would be that the strategy isn’t working and doesn’t seem likely to work ever, at least not in President Hamid Karzai’s Afghanistan. This argument is open to debate, but that is the debate worth having.

Two facts are widely acknowledged by all sides in this debate. First, Petraeus has made substantial progress in the fight against the insurgents. He and his team have killed a lot of mid- to upper-level Taliban fighters and commanders, disrupted their command and control network, and loosened—in some cases, knocked away—the Taliban’s grip on swaths of territory, especially in the southern, heavily Pashtun provinces, where the militants once held unchallenged sway. (In reaction, some Taliban have taken the fight back to a few cities, including Kandahar City, where they’re assassinating local officials; whether this marks a last gasp or a reshaping of the battlefield is as yet unclear.)

But second, this tactical progress on the strictly military level has not translated into much strategic progress on the much more vital political level. All wars are fought for political objectives, and this is doubly so for insurgency wars, in which the whole point is to create a “zone of security” so that the government can provide basic services and win the support of the population, undermining the base of support for the insurgents in the process. President Karzai has not taken advantage of the zone of security that U.S. and NATO (and, increasingly, Afghan) forces have fought so hard to create, at so much cost in lives and other resources.

It’s a fair question to ask whether these strategic objectives will ever be met, regardless of how skillfully the U.S. and NATO forces plan and fight their counterinsurgency campaign. And if it’s thought that the objectives can’t be met, it’s fair to demand at the very least that we scale back our objectives to something more feasible—which would certainly require far fewer troops.

In most successful COIN campaigns throughout history, the host-nation government and the foreign government helping to defend it from an insurgency have shared a set of basic interests. In Afghanistan, this isn’t the case. The United States needs the Afghan government to adopt reforms, so that some power can be shared with district leaders, and to fill its ministries with more competent officials, so that services can be provided to the people. But Karzai’s power depends in large part on maintaining—and buying off—a network of cronies. Corruption and tight central control are part of the system; without it, he’d lose grip on the reins. Petraeus has built up some local self-defense units, independent of the Afghan National Army, to protect their own towns and villages. One of his aides, Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, has launched an anti-corruption effort. Both have had some results—but they’ve been limited, perhaps inherently so.

Some officials also fear that the West is pouring so much money into Afghanistan (many times more than the country’s total gross national product) that Karzai and his cronies—who are getting rich from their slices of development contracts and economic aid—would actually prefer that the war never end.

To say the least, this is a morbid situation.

If for whatever reason President Obama wants to draw down more troops than his military commanders recommend, that is his right as commander-in-chief. But it would be dishonest to justify such a move by claiming that the strategy is working, and therefore we can afford to make deeper troop cuts than expected. The thing is, we’re not doing that fine. The insurgents are not so weak, and the Afghan army is not so strong, that the Taliban couldn’t reoccupy large areas of land if the United States suddenly pulled out in large numbers.

It would be more honest to claim that, under the circumstances, the strategy itself needs a course correction.

The alternative course would be to follow what is likely to be the military’s advice and withdraw only a few thousand troops—but, at the same time, to issue stern warnings to Karzai (quietly, behind the scenes) that this really is his last chance to do what he needs to do to build an effective government that can keep insurgencies at bay over the long haul.

Two new factors improve the chances that a good cop/bad cop plan might actually work this time around. First, the Senate is about to confirm Ryan Crocker as the new U.S. ambassador to Kabul. Crocker is a shrewd, experienced diplomat (he was ambassador to Baghdad during Petraeus’ time as commander in Iraq), and he has had experience in Afghanistan, as well. Karzai is likely to view him as a welcome replacement to Karl Eikenberry, who did little to disguise his distaste for Karzai. (Perhaps Eikenberry was right, but it may not be the best approach for an ambassador.)

Second, before the 2010 elections, a Democratic president would have faced no problem getting war funding from Congress: Nearly all Republicans would support him because they were hawks; enough Democrats would go along out of party loyalty. This is no longer true. Enough Democrats are tiring of the war, and enough Republicans are Tea Party libertarians that continued funding really is in jeopardy.

There is an opportunity here, perhaps the last opportunity, for the Obama administration to use the combination of tactical military gains, fresh diplomatic leadership, and serious fiscal threats from Congress—an array of “sticks and carrots” more plentiful than any available in this war up until now—as leverage to squeeze some major concessions from Karzai, to get him to adopt the reforms without which this war is a lost cause.