The Afghanistan Decision

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Conservative critics have observed a lack of passion in the delivery of the President's decision on Afghanistan. This is one I may agree with them on. Frankly, I wanted to see a very sober Commander in Chief rather than one who pursued this fateful decision with arrogant self confidence. Afghanistan, after all, is not called "The Graveyard of Empires" because it is easy!

If it is true that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose, the President seems to have governed appropriately in this case. I find the criticism coming from left and right both predictable and unrealistic. The two extreme options did not present themselves here. If the President announced that he was withdrawing our forces over the next year, he would have had to assert that Al Qaeda no longer represents a serious threat, that a Taliban government was an acceptable outcome and that eight years of investment in Afghanistan was wasted. Not likely.

If he decided that he wanted to "win" in military terms, as John McCain is urging, he would have had to find some 350,000 to 500,000 troops to cover the population and topography of Afghanistan. Not only were those troops not available, adopting this approach could have inflamed the entire region and led to a quagmire similar to that the Soviets experience two decades ago.

The "middle ground" offered by Obama may not succeed either, but after much reflection, it obviouly appeared to him the only viable course. General McChrystal. the ground commander, has offered a very radical change in approach. His famously leaked report calls for a drastic change in military doctrine, from a traditional force-protection strategy that has led to many civilian deaths and much controversy, to a counterinsurgency effort that seeks to protect population centers and win hearts and minds.

This is not a "surge" as we have come to understand that word as it was applied to Iraq. The focus in Iraq was Baghdad where 28,000 new troops were deployed. Here, urban areas will also provide focus, but the phased insertion of new troops will both attempt to blunt and deter Taliban insurgents and provide security for ever wider regions in a nation that by all accounts does not want to see the Taliban return to power.

The problem is that this strategy will depend as much on the willingness of the Pakistani military to control its borders as on the success of US forces in Afghanistan. It will also depend on a much more successful civilian effort to bring about reconciliation, better governance, and development activities that build local capacity and empower Afghans to run their own affairs.

This work can best be done from the US side by a reinvigorated Agency for International Development. For the past 8 years, we have been sending contractors into Afghanistan, many funded by DoD, who have been doing things for and to Afghans, but not with them. This, combined with record levels of corruption and ineffectiveness from the Central Government, has produced deep resentment toward the West.

Central governments have never been able to effectively rule this large, highly diverse country, but a corrupt Karzai government whose legitimacy has been questioned after a stolen election has even less capacity to rule from the center. McChrystal will obviously use resources to pay warlords to create local jobs, but more is needed. The governance structures need to be decentralized and the Karzai government will have to deal with corruption with obvious and swift justice and by installing systems whose transparency makes stealing and bribes more difficult.

Despite its weakened state, USAID has the knowledge and experience to carry out programs that will empower Afghans and provide the technical knowledge to effectuate needed changes in government systems. A new, dynamic leader, Dr. Rajiv Shah, will soon take the helm at USAID and I believe he will be able to deliver what is needed in this crisis.

US interests in both Pakistan and Afghanistan have been poorly served because our self-help programs have been run by military and diplomatic officials who know little about development. If the Agency is too stretched to take on the AF/PAK challenge, it may need to tap its retired officers. Even that would be better than people who aren't willing to admit what they don't know, or contractors more interested in profit than progress.

The President needs all this to work perfectly if his decision is to produce results. I think he knows that a radical new counterinsurgency strategy with a weakened civilian development effort is less than optimal. Combine this with a Taliban opponent feeding off a highly controversial Karzai government and you are pursuing a high- risk strategy. It is no wonder that the President seemed a bit sober at West Point.