The request for additional forces by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, poses cruel dilemmas for President Obama. If he refuses the recommendation and General McChrystal's argument that his forces are inadequate for the mission, Obama will be blamed for the dramatic consequences. If he accepts the recommendation, his opponents may come to describe it, at least in part, as Obama's war. If he compromises, he may fall between all stools—too little to make progress, too much to still controversy. And he must make the choice on the basis of assessments he cannot prove when he makes them.
This is the inextricable anguish of the presidency, for which Obama is entitled to respect from every side of the debate. Full disclosure compels me to state at the beginning that I favor fulfilling the commander's request and a modification of the strategy. But I also hope that the debate ahead of us avoids the demoralizing trajectory that characterized the previous controversies in wars against adversaries using guerrilla tactics, especially Vietnam and Iraq.
Each of those wars began with widespread public support. Each developed into a stalemate, in part because the strategy of guerrillas generally aims at psychological exhaustion. Stalemate triggered a debate about the winnability of the war. A significant segment of the public grew disenchanted and started questioning the moral basis of the conflict. Inexorably, the demand arose for an exit strategy with an emphasis on exit and not strategy.
The demand for an exit strategy is, of course, a metaphor for withdrawal, and withdrawal that is not accompanied by a willingness to sustain the outcome amounts to abandonment. In Vietnam, Congress terminated an American role even after all our troops had, in fact, been withdrawn for two years. It remains to be seen to what extent the achievements of the surge in Iraq will be sustained there politically.
The most unambiguous form of exit strategy is victory, though as we have seen in Korea, where American troops have remained since 1953, even that may not permit troop withdrawals. A seemingly unavoidable paradox emerges. The domestic debate generates the pressure for diplomatic compromise. Yet the fanaticism that motivates guerrillas—not to speak of suicide bombers—does not allow for compromise unless they face defeat or exhaustion. That, in turn, implies a surge testing the patience of the American public. Is that paradox soluble?
The prevailing strategy in Afghanistan is based on the classic anti-insurrection doctrine: to build a central government, commit it to the improvement of the lives of its people, and then protect the population until that government's own forces are able, with our training, to take over. The request for more forces by General McChrystal states explicitly that his existing forces are inadequate for this mission, implying three options: to continue the present deployment and abandon the McChrystal strategy; to decrease the present deployment with a new strategy; or to increase the existing deployment with a strategy focused on the security of the population. A decision not to increase current force levels involves, at a minimum, abandoning the strategy proposed by General McChrystal and endorsed by Gen. David Petraeus; it would be widely interpreted as the first step toward withdrawal. The second option—offered as an alternative—would shrink the current mission by focusing on counter-terrorism rather than counter-insurgency. The argument would be that the overriding American strategic objective in Afghanistan is to prevent the country from turning once again into a base for international terrorism. Hence the defeat of Al Qaeda and radical Islamic jihad should be the dominant priority. Since the Taliban, according to this view, is a local, not a global, threat, it can be relegated to being a secondary target. A negotiation with the group might isolate Al Qaeda and lead to its defeat, in return for not challenging the Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan. After all, it was the Taliban which provided bases for Al Qaeda in the first place.
This theory seems to me to be too clever by half. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are unlikely to be able to be separated so neatly geographically. It would also imply the partition of Afghanistan along functional lines, for it is highly improbable that the civic actions on which our policies are based could be carried out in areas controlled by the Taliban. Even so-called realists—like me—would gag at a tacit U.S. cooperation with the Taliban in the governance of Afghanistan.
This is not to exclude the possibility of defections from the Taliban as occurred from Al Qaeda in Iraq's Anbar province. But those occurred after the surge, not as a way to avoid it. To adopt such a course is a disguised way of retreating from Afghanistan altogether.
Those in the chain of command in Afghanistan, each with outstanding qualifications, have all been recently appointed by the Obama administration. Rejecting their recommendations would be a triumph of domestic politics over strategic judgment. It would draw us into a numbers game without definable criteria.
President Obama, as a candidate, proclaimed Afghanistan a necessary war. As president, he has shown considerable courage in implementing his promise to increase our forces in Afghanistan and to pursue the war more energetically. A sudden reversal of American policy would fundamentally affect domestic stability in Pakistan by freeing the Qaeda forces along the Afghan border for even deeper incursions into Pakistan, threatening domestic chaos. It would raise the most serious questions about American steadiness in India, the probable target should a collapse in Afghanistan give jihad an even greater impetus. In short, the reversal of a process introduced with sweeping visions by two administrations may lead to chaos, ultimately deeper American involvement, and loss of confidence in American reliability. The prospects of world order will be greatly affected by whether our strategy comes to be perceived as a retreat from the region, or a more effective way to sustain it.
The military strategy proposed by Generals McChrystal and Petraeus needs, however, to be given a broader context with particular emphasis on the political environment. Every guerrilla war raises the challenge of how to define military objectives. Military strategy is traditionally defined by control of the maximum amount of territory. But the strategy of the guerrilla—described by Mao—is to draw the adversary into a morass of popular resistance in which, after a while, extrication becomes his principal objective. In Vietnam, the guerrillas often ceded control of the territory during the day and returned at night to prevent political stabilization. Therefore, in guerrilla war, control of 75 percent of the territory 100 percent of the time is more important than controlling 100 percent of the territory 75 percent of the time. A key strategic issue, therefore, will be which part of Afghan territory can be effectively controlled in terms of these criteria.
This is of particular relevance to Afghanistan. No outside force has, since the Mongol invasion, ever pacified the entire country. Even Alexander the Great only passed through. Afghanistan has been governed, if at all, by a coalition of local feudal or semifeudal rulers. In the past, any attempt to endow the central government with overriding authority has been resisted by some established local rulers. That is likely to be the fate of any central government in Kabul, regardless of its ideological coloration and perhaps even its efficiency. It would be ironic if, by following the received counterinsurgency playbook too literally, we produced another motive for civil war. Can a civil society be built on a national basis in a country which is neither a nation nor a state?
In a partly feudal, multiethnic society, fundamental social reform is a long process, perhaps unrelatable to the rhythm of our electoral processes. For the foreseeable future, the control from Kabul may be tenuous and its structure less than ideal. More emphasis needs to be given to regional efforts and regional militia. This would also enhance our political flexibility. A major effort is needed to encourage such an evolution.
Concurrently, a serious diplomatic effort is needed to address the major anomaly of the Afghan war. In all previous American ground-combat efforts, once the decision was taken, there was no alternative to America's leading the effort; no other country had the combination of resources or national interest required. The special aspect of Afghanistan is that it has powerful neighbors or near neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran. Each is threatened in one way or another and, in many respects, more than we are by the emergence of a base for international terrorism: Pakistan by Al Qaeda; India by general jihadism and specific terror groups; China by fundamentalist Shiite jihadists in Xinjiang; Russia by unrest in the Muslim south; even Iran by the fundamentalist Sunni Taliban. Each has substantial capacities for defending its interests. Each has chosen, so far, to stand more or less aloof.
The summit of neighboring (or near-neighboring) countries proposed by the secretary of state could, together with NATO allies, begin to deal with this anomaly. It should seek an international commitment to an enforced nonterrorist Afghanistan, much as countries were neutralized by international agreement when Europe dominated world affairs. This is a complex undertaking. But a -common effort could at least remove shortsighted temptations to benefit from the embarrassment of rivals. It would take advantage of the positive aspect that, unlike Vietnam or Iraq, the guerrillas do not enjoy significant support. It may finally be the route to an effective national government. If cooperation cannot be achieved, the United States may have no choice but to reconsider its options and to gear its role in Afghanistan to goals directly relevant to threats to American security. In that eventuality, it will do so not as an abdication but as a strategic judgment. But it is premature to reach such a conclusion on present evidence.
For the immediate future, it is essential to avoid another wrenching domestic division and to conduct the inevitable debate with respect for its complexity and the stark choices confronting our country.