As the president moves this week to make a decision on Afghanistan, three schools of thought have emerged on what he should do. The president could choose to go all in. He could choose a minimalist strategy. Or he could opt for something in the middle. The president has no good options, but the best option is to pursue a middle of the road approach for at least the next 12-18 months. If it proves to be ineffective, the president should then move to a minimalist strategy.
The "all in" approach, best exemplified by John McCain and Joe Lieberman's op-ed in the Washington Post, argues for "victory" through a full scale commitment of undetermined length at an undetermined cost. It is supported by hawks like McCain and Lieberman who generally believe that America must "win" any war no matter the cost. A more clear-eyed view, but still part of the "all in" school, is that of many in the counterinsurgency community who believe that the way forward in Afghanistan requires a population-centric counterinsurgency campaign that would likely take years. As John Nagl recently explained, "We have more fighting in front of us than behind us." The "all in" crowd also includes many in the development community, who are less focused on the military options, but have invested years working to improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan and do not want to see a reduced commitment.
The minimalist approach is supported by a combination of realists and progressives. It calls for doing what we can to help the people of Afghanistan, while limiting our military commitment and recognizing that America's ability to influence events in far off unstable states such as Afghanistan is incredibly limited. Les Gelb's writings on this issue present an excellent example of the realist approach and are focused primarily on a short and limited surge to help the Afghans followed by a containment strategy that brings in Afghanistan's neighbors and reduces the threat of terrorism to the United States and its allies. Alex Thurston and the coalition behind Get Afghanistan Right offer a different take on minimalism - one that is more skeptical of any use of military force but is willing to do more on the non-military side.
The third option is the middle ground and it is the option that seems most likely to be pursued by the Obama administration. It calls for minimalist goals based on limiting the possibility of an Al Qaeda safe haven and the chance that instability in Afghanistan could destabilize Pakistan. But it argues that to achieve this goal the U.S. needs to invest in enough security and Afghan governing capacity to avoid a total collapse. The result is a plan that calls for a dramatic increase in military and non-military resources. It is at a much higher level than what the minimalists may prefer but may not be nearly enough for the "all in" crowd.
Most of the proponents of these three approaches have much in common. They agree on the need for broader engagement with Afghanistan's neighbors to develop and coordinate an international response that helps stabilize the country. They recognize the importance of Pakistan and the need to: lend support to democratic institutions that will strengthen and stabilize the government; provide more development and economic aid; limit Indian-Pakistani tensions so that the Pakistani military makes a greater commitment to dealing with the insurgency on its side of the border; and help the Pakistani military become more adept at counterinsurgency. The three approaches also concur on the fact that there is no strictly military solution for the conflict and that only a comprehensive solution that increases civilian capacities, governance, the ability of the Afghan security forces and police, and economic opportunities for Afghans. In fact, most of the strategies also seem to support or at the very least not object to some form of engagement with the Taliban and an attempt to split off the more moderate elements from the extremists.
Where the different approaches disagree is on the use of military force and the level of commitment that will be required by the United States.
Each of the options also has major downsides. The "all in" approach does not carefully take into account U.S. strategic interests or weigh costs and benefits. It starts from the view that Al Qaeda represents a threat to the United States and moves quickly to a need for a massive commitment without carefully explaining why it is in America's interests to pour billions of dollars and thousands of troops into Afghanistan to create a democratic Afghan state.
The minimalist approach assumes that there is simply not that much that we can do in Afghanistan, but seems cavalier about our ability to prevent an Al Qaeda safe haven or the melt down of the Pakistani state as we withdraw and leave in place an even worse security vacuum than the one that exists today. It also ignores any moral questions that might be tied to abandoning our Afghan allies to extremist elements.
The middle approach has its own dangers. Just as did in Iraq from 2003-2006 or in Vietnam from 1965-1968, the United States may find itself doing enough not to lose, but not enough to win. The result would be a slowly deteriorating situation that would lose all domestic support in the United States and eventually collapse with much greater costs to us and to the Afghan people.
Yet despite that very real danger, at this point the middle approach is the best option to try for at least the next 12-18 months. A massive and unlimited commitment is completely unrealistic both politically and financially in the midst of a global economic crisis. And our interests in Afghanistan do not rise to the level of meriting this type of approach. However, it's too early to go with a minimalist approach considering that right now is the first time in seven years that the United States is finally putting all of the elements of national power behind a serious approach to Afghanistan.
By the middle of 2002 the Bush administration was completely absorbed with Iraq and that focus remained until the end of the administration. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen explained in 2007 "In Afghanistan we do what we can. In Iraq we do what we must." This applied not just to the military but to our national security bureaucracy and the top level of political leadership that only now for the first time since 2002 are focusing on Afghanistan as an absolute top priority and putting the resources and thinking into a comprehensive strategy. From this perspective it seems premature to at least not try a comprehensive diplomatic, regional, military, and development approach to the conflict. It may work. It may not work. But I am not willing to not try at all. Especially since our interests in Afghanistan are significant, even if they do not rise to the level of an existential threat that some would have us believe .
If a middle ground strategy shows little to no progress within the next 12-18 months than it would be wise for Obama and his advisors to reconsider and move to a strategy along the lines of the minimalist path advocated by Gelb. This will be extraordinarily difficult as once you commit to a strategy changing course involves admitting failure and reevaluating - something American administrations have been historically bad at. But despite this potential danger, it's simply too early right now to move into containment mode and dramatic escalation is not a viable option. The middle path is not a good option. But it is the best of a number of bad ones.