Six months ago, when President Obama was first confronted with a request from the Pentagon for more troops for Afghanistan, he faced a basic choice: Should he opt for a narrow, low-cost strategy of "counter-terrorism," focused on attacking Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies? Or should he embrace a broader, more expensive strategy of "counterinsurgency" -- sending troops to protect Afghan cities, train the Afghan army and bolster the Afghan government?
In March, Obama ducked the choice. He defined his goal narrowly, as disrupting terrorist groups, but he also endorsed counterinsurgency as the way to do that. He was only two months into the job, so it's no surprise that he kicked the can down the road. But now, six months later, he faces the consequences of not having made a decision.
His new military commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has focused on Obama's seeming embrace of counterinsurgency and submitted a proposal for an ambitious approach aimed at protecting civilians and training the country's security forces. The strategy would require thousands more troops and (according to one McChrystal advisor) at least six more years. Even then, the general doesn't promise victory -- just that any other course "will likely result in failure."
Confronted with that grim assessment, and aware that domestic support for the war is slipping, Obama has called a timeout to reconsider the options.
"Until I'm satisfied that we've got the right strategy, I'm not going to be sending some young man or woman over there beyond what we already have," he said last week.
The president's advisors are divided. Vice President Joe Biden is arguing -- as he did in March -- for a narrower counter-terrorist strategy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke and McChrystal's military superiors are pushing for a more comprehensive counterinsurgency. The Pentagon is alarmed that its commander in the field is being undercut; White House aides are annoyed that the brass has backed the president into a corner by arguing the case in public.
Both sides acknowledge that it's a close question. Nobody's arguing for complete withdrawal; both sides want to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan to train the country's army. In a sense, both sides agree that counterinsurgency would be the best strategy; the argument is over whether it can work. And the crux of that question isn't military, it's political: Counterinsurgency only works if the country's government is supported by a majority of its people. Afghanistan's government, at this point, is not.
The regime of President Hamid Karzai, once an American darling, has turned into a corrupt and ineffective coalition of cronies and warlords. The U.S. had hoped that Afghanistan's presidential election in August would produce a winner with new legitimacy, but Karzai rigged the vote so flagrantly that it had the opposite result. Before counterinsurgency can work -- with or without more troops -- a legitimate government must be in place.
That's why Clinton and her British counterpart, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, have told Karzai that he can't count on Western support unless election irregularities are addressed openly and fairly. "We're not going to make any decisions of any significance until we know the outcome of this election," Clinton said last week.
U.S. officials say the solution could come in any of several forms, but they appear at the moment to favor the idea of a "unity government" in which Karzai would agree to share power with his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. So far that's not getting much traction with the Afghans. Karzai doesn't want to see his power diluted, and Abdullah says he won't join the government if it's only to be window-dressing.
If Karzai manages to hold on to power, the U.S. could decide not to send more troops, an option Obama's policy review makes seem more plausible.
But at some point soon, Obama will have to decide what he realistically can accomplish, and craft a plan based on that. He has blown hot and cold on this war over the last six months. "There's got to be an exit strategy," he said in March, much to the relief of Democratic doves. "This is not a war of choice, this is a war of necessity," he said in August, giving a nod to the counterinsurgency hawks. Obama and his aides say that's evidence of deep thinking. At some point, it's just vacillation.
The president faces a choice between two bad options. The counter-terrorism strategy looks less costly, but it's not clear whether it would really achieve Obama's aim to "dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda," and it still leaves U.S. troops in a dangerous place. The counterinsurgency approach McChrystal has proposed will cost more political capital and may cost the lives of more U.S. troops. But it offers at least the possibility of better long-term results.
Obama may well give the generals the 12 to 18 months they've asked for to give counterinsurgency a try. That's probably the right answer, but he should do so only if Afghanistan has a working government first.