Obama's new policy for Afghanistan tries to steer a middle course.

Obama's new policy for Afghanistan tries to steer a middle course.

Obama's new policy for Afghanistan tries to steer a middle course.

Military analysis.
March 27 2009 7:00 PM

Counterinsurgenterrorism

Obama's new policy for Afghanistan tries to steer a middle course.

U.S. Marines In Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
Afghan children reach for candy from U.S. Marines on patrol 

If you're confused about President Barack Obama's "comprehensive strategy" for Afghanistan and Pakistan, which he laid out this morning, don't feel dense. I'm confused, too, and so are several military experts I've been talking with.

The president seems to have taken a middle course in the debate among his advisers, forging bits and pieces of both sides' proposals into a consensus policy that has something to please almost everybody. Presidents who do this usually stumble into disaster. But in this case Obama may have hit the right balance.

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And yet there are puzzles and contradictions. There's clearly still much for Obama and the NATO allies—and everyone else concerned with the region—to work out. The debate is not over. The strategy is still a work in progress, as is the war.

The internal debate leading up to today's announcement pitted officials who advocated a broad counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy against those calling for a more direct, less ambitious counterterrorism (CT) campaign.

The COIN-dinistas, as some call them, argue that the best way to defeat insurgents is to protect the population and provide basic services, thus drying up the insurgents' base of support and strengthening loyalty to the government. Going after the terrorists directly must be part of any approach, they agree. But if that's the central element, it only gives the bad guys the initiative, lets them melt into the landscape, and kills too many civilians caught in the crossfire, thus alienating the people we're trying to help.

Those more strictly CT advocates, led I'm told by Vice President Joe Biden, concede that the COIN camp has a point. But they say that following that course would require too many troops, too much money, and way too much time—more of all three than the United States and NATO could muster—and that the insurgents might still win anyway. Better to focus U.S. efforts more narrowly on simply fighting the insurgents themselves, especially in the border areas with Pakistan.

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In the end, Obama went for an option that might be called "CT-plus." Over the next several months, the U.S. military will basically follow Biden's advice. The "plus"—the extra things soldiers might be ordered to do in the months and years that follow—will be determined, in large part, by how well or how badly things are going.

Early in his speech, Obama re-emphasized that his goals in this war are limited: "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." In other words, forget about turning Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy or a bastion of human rights. The reason we have troops there at all is to protect the United States and our allies from another terrorist attack.

The words Obama chose—"to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan"—suggest a CT approach. Referring to the 17,000 troops that he had already announced would be deployed to Afghanistan, Obama said, "These soldiers and Marines will take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east and … go after insurgents along the border." This follows a policy that military leaders have been advocating for several months.

The new element on the military side of Obama's strategy is the deployment of an additional 4,000 troops—the 4th brigade of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division—for the sole purpose of training Afghan security forces. This is unusual. A combat brigade does not generally go to a war zone just to train the local forces. (Several senior Army officers don't like the idea at all.) The brigade will split up into small teams—of a dozen or so soldiers—each of which will be "partnered" with an Afghan unit, to train and "mentor" their forces in the field.

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Obama also wants the United States and its allies to finance the accelerated growth of Afghan security forces to 134,000 soldiers and 82,000 police by 2011. (Japan is paying the entire Afghan military payroll for the next six months, as a start.) Once local forces are able to provide security on their own, we can leave—that's the "exit strategy." (Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has long argued that we should spend more on training allied armies than on fighting their wars ourselves. He seems to be the other victor, besides Biden, in the bureaucratic battle.)

But lest you think Obama has opted for the minimalist, CT approach, listen to what else he said in his speech: "To succeed, we and our friends and allies must … promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government." This will require "a dramatic increase in our civilian effort," and he called for sending the Afghans "agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers." He also said we must compel the Afghan government to reduce the "corruption that causes Afghans to lose faith in their own leaders."

Now that sounds like a counterinsurgency strategy. Indeed, at a press briefing that followed the president's speech, Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy and a well-known COIN advocate, called it "very much a counterinsurgency approach"—though she added that "aggressive military operations" against "high-value targets" (i.e., al-Qaida and Taliban forces) also remain "a central part of this mission."

The problem is, we can't do both. The numbers—in terms of troops, dollars, and the years of patience it will take—don't allow it. The internal debate leading up to Obama's announcement was about priorities and emphasis. Flournoy seems to be finessing these constraints.

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Then again, Obama engaged in a bit of finesse, too. Most critically, it's unclear where all these civilian specialists are going to come from—or, more critically still, who's going to protect them from insurgents' attack. (There are, at least initially, not enough troops to go after terrorists, protect the Afghan population, and protect civilian advisers from the West.) Unless that latter question is settled, nobody is going to report for duty.

But what may have been most interesting about Obama's speech is how little of it dealt with Afghanistan at all. Most of it concerned Pakistan. He wants to spend $1.5 billion a year for the next five years on direct support—roads, schools, hospitals, "opportunity zones" on the border—if Pakistan's leaders get serious about rooting out the terrorists on their western border. He also called for a "contact group" for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together everyone with a stake in the region's security—not just NATO and the Gulf nations but also China, India, Iran, and Russia. Obama seems to understand that policy in Afghanistan, even if it went perfectly, is irrelevant if Pakistan remains in turmoil. (At the press conference after Obama's speech, Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to the area, explicitly said as much.)

So what are Obama's real plans? What can we expect to see over the next year or so? It's hard to say. But today's remarks allow us to engage in some informed speculation:

First, at NATO's summit next week, Obama will ask the allies to increase their economic and development assistance to Afghanistan. (He seems to have surmised that they're not going to send many more troops.)

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Over the next several months, U.S. air and ground forces will step up direct attacks on al-Qaida and Taliban forces in the south and east, to kill as many of them as possible and to keep them away from populated areas, where they might disrupt the presidential elections in August. This is essential in the short run; if the Afghan people are prevented from fairly and freely choosing their national leader (whether it's Karzai or somebody else), all subsequent efforts to secure and stabilize the country will be fruitless.

In the meantime, Obama—and, he hopes, a lot of allies—will pressure Karzai to crack down on corruption, pressure the Pakistanis to crack down on insurgents in the northwest territories, and lay the groundwork for his regional diplomacy.

By the time the election is over, the 4,000 advisers from the 82nd Airborne will have just started working with Afghan units. Depending on how their pre-election offensives have gone, these soldiers will either continue to reinforce this CT effort, move to a COIN approach, or do some mix of both.

At this point, plans get murky—because nobody knows what things will look like. In his speech today, Obama promised to establish firm "benchmarks" and "metrics" by which to measure progress or failure in every area—counterterrorism, population-security, anti-corruption efforts, the whole mix. If the Afghan and Pakistani leaders don't meet these benchmarks, Obama will …

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Well, it's not clear what he'll do. But it's a fair guess that one thing he won't do is send the level of troops or spend the amount of money required for a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign. If things go well, he still might not shift to

COIN, but maybe he'll be better-positioned to persuade other governments to join the effort. ("None of the steps I've outlined … should be taken by America alone," he said in his speech.)

At a press conference after Obama's speech, Bruce Riedel, who led the White House strategic review on the new policy, admitted that specific benchmarks haven't yet been defined. Holbrooke added that the strategy itself is "a framework within which there's plenty of flexibility to bring in ideas which are not in this report."

In one sense, this is worrisomely open-ended. But in the broader context, it's only reasonable. Obama is saying that what he does a year from now depends, in large part, on what happens between now and then. "We will not blindly stay the course," he said, in a clear jab at his predecessor. We "will not, and cannot, provide a blank check."

Biden's argument against an all-out COIN strategy stemmed from caution about getting sucked into a possible quagmire—a resistance to uncontrolled escalation. It's a resistance that Obama seems to share.