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Three Choices in Afghanistan: Counter-Terrorist War, Counter-Insurgency, and Containment

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This week the leaking of General McChrystal's report - and the subsequent release of a redacted version - has led to a general reevaluation of our strategy in Afghanistan. Most of the attention that has been paid to McChrystal's report has focused on his call for additional forces; on Friday, he specified that he wants 40,000 additional troops.
In fact, however, the more important theme of the report is McChrystal's specific and relentless critique of the present strategy. He writes, "Inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced" (emphasis added). (For the full declassified version of the report, go here.)

Largely in response, the Obama administration is undertaking a strategic review. Obama has declared his intention to consider all options in going forward, to the express distress of some of his military commanders. Some people have staked out clear positions: McChrystal's is one, Biden's is another. Meanwhile, public support for the war is crumbling, particularly among Obama's own party and its supporters. Conversely, the Justice Department's decision to press ahead with CIA probe is giving Republicans ammunition to trot out the old accusations about Democrats being weak on security. Condoleezza Rice - not usually considered a wing-nut extremist - provided a taste of what is likely to come in the event Obama decides to withdraw troops from Afghanistan: "If you want another terrorist attack in the U.S., abandon Afghanistan."

That's the background from the past week. What are Obama's choices going forward? There are basically three strategies: counter-terrorist war, counter-insurgency, and containment.

1. Counter-Terrorist Warfare. This is our current approach. It involves a combination of precision strikes from Predator drones and Special Forces insertion teams, aimed at the leadership of the terrorist organizations, and ground operations aimed at fighting for control of territory. This combination of "clear and hold" and targeted strikes is further combined with development of Afghan forces under the control of the national government, undertaken in the hope of eventually turning control over the operations to the Afghan Army. This is still the current model, and even as Obama is engaging in his strategic review, Secretary of State Clinton and other NATO ministers are reiterating their support for Karzai (if not particularly enthusiastically).

The problems that McChrystal and others have identified with the present approach are daunting: a corrupt and illegitimate central government, insurgents' use of safe havens in Pakistan, recruitment and organization within Afghan prisons (the Israelis have experienced the same thing in the past with their mass internment of Palestinians), and pervasive fear and mistrust of the international forces. McChrystal complains that the Americans and their allies are "pre-occupied with protection of our own forces" and have consequently "operated in a manner that distances us -- physically and psychologically -- from the people we seek to protect." He calls on troops to spend "as little time as possible in armored vehicles or behind the walls of forward operating bases" to "share risk ... with the people." Otherwise, he warns, the cause may be lost. "The insurgents cannot defeat us, but we can defeat ourselves."

2. Counter-insurgency. What McChrystal is calling for is a shift from an anti-terrorism policy to an anti-insurgency policy. Anti-terrorism involves hunting down and taking out leadership of terrorist organizations, depriving them of supplies, and degrading their military capacity. Anti-insurgency is something entirely different, a campaign for the hearts and minds of the people in order to deprive the terrorists of a friendly environment in which to operate and diminish their pool of potential recruits. That, in turn, means making a priority of protecting the local population - that is, minimizing damage to civilians rather than maximizing damage to enemy combatants. It means getting soldiers out into local areas so that they will be viewed as friends rather than occupiers. It also means taking even more casualties, asking soldiers to perform a whole range of tasks for which they are not specifically trained (McChrystal calls for soldiers in the field to learn local languages, for example).

There are some problems with this strategy, too. For one thing, as McChrystal himself acknowledges, this strategy makes US and allied soldiers more vulnerable: his recommendations, he frankly acknowledges, are likely to lead to increased casualties "in the short run." The strategy also involves a shift in focus away from the national government toward local leadership. It is not only the case (as it certainly is) that the Karzai government has no legitimacy, it is also the case that the very idea of a centralized national government with control over a single, nationalized military force is a strange one in the Afghan context.

And it's not just the national government. Foreign NGO's, private contractors, large-scale development plans, all of that way of thinking would have to be abandoned in favor of thinking on a scale of villages and valleys. Lots and lots of villages and valleys. A counter-insurgency strategy requires successfully delivering support - money, training, weapons, investment -- to local Afghan leaders and leaving it to them to implement the actual distribution. The whole point is to strengthen and co-opt local authorities, not to compete with them. But that means understanding those leadership structures and meeting them on their own terms. And the eventual turnover of operations to local forces would also have to take place one village at a time, under local control, a scenario that must sound like a nightmare to military commanders trained in the traditional doctrines of large-scale armed combat. In other words, the whole idea of training Afghans to fight like Americans, equipped like American soldiers, would have to be abandoned.

A strategy of this kind takes a great deal of time, and requires a very large investment of manpower. It requires the willingness to absorb casualties, extreme flexibility in defining categories such as "ally" and "enemy" ... in every way, the strategy that McChrystal is recommending is anathema to the conduct of the war in Afghanistan that Bush initiated and that Obama has, thus far, continued. The promise is that with sufficient patience - and we are talking about progress measured in years if not decades, here - the outcome could be a genuine success, a stable Afghanistan whose people are, if not unified in a Western nationalist sense, at least mutually committed to the continued success of the state and unified in their rejection of the alternative of fundamentalist religious rule offered by the Taliban and whoever will be the heirs to that movement.

3. Containment. This is the opposite to counter-insurgency, the move toward minimal rather than maximal engagement, in the hope of accepting smaller risks in return for smaller returns. The idea would be to withdraw the bulk of our forces from Afghanistan and rely on missile strikes and insertion teams to continue to take out terrorist leadership. This is essentially the Biden approach. The idea is to contain Al Qaeda, keeping it bottled up inside Afghanistan - or Afghanistan and Pakistan (more on that in a moment) - ceding control over territory while degrading the organizations' capability of carrying out attacks in the West. There are some questions about our ability to maintain this strategy without a robust presence on ground: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, has expressed doubt about our ability to pull off such an approach on the grounds that we don't have the necessary kind or amount of intelligence.

Assuming such a strategy could be carried out successfully, it still raises a lot of troubling questions. For one thing, it is highly plausible that such a strategy really would mean additional attacks on the West. That may not be an excessive price to pay; at some point, the cost of continuing the war is too high for the benefit in security that it is supposed to secure. No one, after all, is talking about walking away from the conflict with terrorist organizations altogether, and no one suggests that tolerating 9/11-style attacks is ever acceptable. But intelligence sources cited by AP say that there has been significant successes lately in reducing Al Qaeda's capabilities through targeted killings of leadership figures. Moreover, over the past few years Al Qaeda and groups like it have lost a great deal of the public support they once enjoyed by virtue of their attacks on local civilian populations. And there have been significant successes in disrupting international financing operations, not to mention significant enhancements of security operations across the board. And in addition to the kinds of strikes I have already mentioned, there would presumably be continued support for and engagement with the regimes in the "Af-Pak" theater and beyond.

Moreover, there are plenty of people - including General McChrystal - who point to the fact that to at least some extent, the presence of foreign troops engaged in the current style of operations creates motivation for attacks on the West. In its most recent message, Al Qaeda threatens to bomb Oktoberfest in Munich unless Germany withdraws its troops from Afghanistan. We may take it for granted that Al Qaeda will never lose its hatred of the U.S., but much more immediately vulnerable European allies may have to balance the security gains of continued military involvement with the security gains of a reduction in their target profile. As for the U.S., it can be argued that extensive military engagement in Afghanistan is not actually necessary to protect the U.S., which depends more on a combination of police work here (as in the case of the recent arrests of members of the Zazi network) and disruption of global terrorist networks and terrorist leadership Over There.

Is containment a reasonable strategy? It has some obvious flaws. For one thing, even if it is the case from a cold, actuarial perspective that the price of either the anti-terrorist or anti-insurgency strategies is actually greater than the cost of the kinds of attacks that might get through, that idea as a political proposition is likely to be - to put it mildly - a tough sell. Moreover, we have other concerns. Withdrawal from Afghanistan means increasing the destabilizing pressures on Pakistan, which is already the place where Al Qaeda is essentially based (and which has nuclear weapons). We also have a significant interest in maintaining a presence in the region; take a look at a map and consider the long border between Iran and Afghanistan, for example. That border is one really good reason to renew our post-9/11 cooperative relationship with Iran, if we can. (I have commented on this issue before.) It is also a reason to worry about leaving Afghanistan if, in fact, our relationship with Iran is not going to improve. And there is the drug trade; again, a matter of significant U.S. concern.

Nonetheless, some version of containment may ultimately be the only realistic option. Continuing with more of the same seems like an even more dangerous gamble; McChrystal's criticisms on that score are compelling. But are the American people really ready to accept military casualties in the thousands rather than the hundreds (783 to date), and the continuing expenditures of additional hundreds of billions of dollars? There are a lot of reasons people are dusting off the old analogies to Viet Nam; the need for public support to successfully wage a long war is one of them.

A mixed approach is possible that tries to combine elements of counter-insurgency with a long-term fallback strategy of containment is a possibility. In fact, this is what I expect to see come out of the Obama administration, with its relentless focus on splitting the difference. Such a mixed approach would likely involve a counter-insurgency-style strategy combined with "benchmarks" for measuring progress, and a goal of shifting to a strategy of containment within a specified period of years. That strategy would have to be accompanied by a lot of other things, starting with intensive engagement with Pakistan - which includes a different kind of engagement with India, whose traditional close ties and current influence in Afghanistan has everything to do with the sometimes mixed attitudes of Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment.

In other words, it's complicated. To their credit, the current administration appears to understand that fact. McChrystal is surely right that the path to the best plausible outcome is the long, hard, expensive and potentially bloody slog that he seems willing to undertake. But I do not believe that there is either current political will or any sufficient guarantee of future willingness to continue with such an approach. Nor is it clear that the kind of vital U.S. interests that justify such an extended engagement applies. As much as I am horrified by the Taliban's treatment of Afghan women, I would not want to go to war - or send my son to war -- to stop it. If this is not about U.S. security, it is not a serious conversation.

The combined counterinsurgency-leading-to-containment strategy is rife with flaws and risks, but it may be the best that we can do.

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