Ambiguous Strategy or Strategic Ambiguity?

President Obama is sending 17,000 combat troops to Afghanistan. It is possible more will follow in the months to come. While this allows the President to live up to his campaign promise to refocus America's fight against terrorism, it fails to answer a basic question: What is it we're trying to accomplish in Afghanistan?

Anti-war critics have been quick to jump on the lack of clarity. "The president is committing these troops before he's determined what the mission is," according to Tom Andrews, director of Win Without War. It's a poignant accusation. President Obama has not outlined a strategy for success or a vision for what victory might look like. But what if this is actually part of the strategy?

Recent history suggests that this might be the case. George W. Bush did not set himself up for failure by mere incompetence. That characteristic certainly contributed to his stunning lack of success abroad, but the Bush administration made one particular error that has plagued our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan ever since. It vastly overpromised what we are able to accomplish.

President Bush routinely spoke as though displacing the Taliban and overthrowing Saddam Hussein would naturally lead to the flowering of democracy in the Middle East. Just as the Cold War domino theory predicted that allowing one country to fall to communism would automatically lead to other countries' fall, the Bush administration assumed that the advent of democracy in one country would lead to democracies in all countries.

He was wrong. He failed to create a strategy because he assumed that democracies grow out of power vacuums. In fact, only power struggles grow out of power vacuums. When verdant democratic pastures failed to materialize, public disillusionment with the wars grew. Such are the fruits of being reckless and out of touch with reality.

President Obama has not articulated a clear strategy either, but that might be a deliberate choice based on a complicated reality, rather than an omission of intellectual laziness and naïveté. Unlike Bush, the Obama administration has never promised that Afghanistan would become a Western-style democracy any time soon. Consequently, his national security team is free to give a much greater role to villages and local tribal organizations, as opposed to relying on the central government alone.

This is a wise move. Local solutions are critical to solving national problems. For example, the long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has been described as un-governable, but local tribal structures of various forms have dealt with those issues for decades. It's only recently that they've been destroyed by warfare; we ought to let hem grow back and develop on their own terms. The wildly successful National Solidarity Program (NSP), which I've written about before, has allowed for the completion of 35,000 development projects in 20,000 communities by allowing villages to elect their own leaders and design their own development projects. It's another example of a bottom-up approach to creating stability in Afghanistan.

Giving a greater role to local initiatives means it's harder to define what exactly success will look like. Perhaps that's why the Obama administration hasn't announced a clear "mission." Arguably, the process of giving greater leeway to local actors and using military resources to train Afghans and protect vulnerable civilians where they live - as opposed to going out and doing battle with insurgents - is the mission. If that creates an Afghanistan that is stable and resistant to terrorism, then who cares what those local structures look like? As long as they allow us to safely leave Afghanistan to its own people, it's all the victory we need.

This strategy also has the virtue of living up to the wishes of the Afghan people, who have more faith in local bodies of governance than in the central government. Of course, the central government must not be ignored. Program like the NSP, though designed at the local level, are funded through the central government, which strengthens localities and the Afghan state itself. It's a win-win approach that is the lynchpin to success in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, I'm speculating here. Maybe the Obama administration has something else in mind. It's hard to tell. But the role it's according to local actors and the new military strategy that aims to protect civilians indicates that President Obama has adopted a policy of strategic ambiguity for a very good reason. Let's hope so.