So, What’s the Strategy in Afghanistan?
If President Obama is to convey a clear message to our NATO allies about Afghanistan, he must choose between two competing alternative strategies, counterterrorism or counterinsurgency:
With just a week until President Barack Obama flies to Strasbourg, France, for his first NATO conference, his top advisers are still divided over what U.S. policy should be on the summit’s No. 1 issue: how to fight the war in Afghanistan.
It’s a debate that the Bush administration never seriously had in the seven years following the post-9/11 invasion. Now, by contrast, in the wake of three major strategic reviews, Obama is extending and deepening the discussion of Afghanistan, because the outcome of this debate may set the course of American foreign policy for the remainder of his presidency.
says Fred Kaplan in Slate. After characterizing the costs and benefits of the two strategies he concludes:
Obama has to choose one approach or the other this week, if he hasn’t done so already. Afghanistan will fill the agenda at next week’s NATO conference. He has said that he’ll ask the allies to step up their involvement. But he can’t expect them to accede unless he requests specific measures and explains how they fit into a clear strategic context, and he can’t do that unless he decides what the strategy is.
I think there are several points that Mr. Kaplan doesn’t underscore sufficiently. First, the more successful either of those two strategies are, the more it will tend to destabilize Pakistan. Indeed, anything short of a complete elimination of the Taliban and Al Qaeda will tend to destabilize Pakistan and I can’t help but think that’s an objective that’s beyond our reach. Add to that the conundrum that we can’t eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda without extending our efforts into Pakistan where they’ve taken shelter, which will also tend to destabilize Pakistan.
Second, neither strategy promises an end to our involvement in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future nor does it place a ceiling on the costs. We know that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan will cost significantly more than it has in Iraq. What will the prospective cost of counterterrorism be?
Third, IMO the reflexive position for American policy with respect to Afghanistan would be to leave. As tempting as it might be, particularly from a domestic political standpoint (“Why are we spending billions in Afghanistan, etc.?”), that’s an alternative which is genuinely not open to us. The risks of a return to the status quo ante are just too high.
So, what’ll it be, Mr. President?
UPDATE (James Joyner): A good question. I put my thoughts on the matter at New Atlanticist earlier this morning: “Afghanistan: Counterinsurgency or Counterterrorism?“