President Obama and his advisers are grappling with questions about Afghanistan far deeper than merely how many troops to send. How do they handle the Taliban, the central government, the countryside versus cities? The larger strategy that the troops, however many of them, are there to implement remains unresolved.
The upshot is that the administration's internal discussions about what to do next in Afghanistan—and the doubts gathering steam in Congress alongside it—are less a policy debate than a Rorschach test. Each participant's vision of Afghanistan reflects his or her perceptions of previous wars.
Vietnam is, of course, the folk memory that haunts the Washington establishment, with Iraq now a close second. But Vietnam and Iraq imprinted different lessons on different people.
Does Afghanistan loom as another "quagmire?" Confronting Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops, Obama's White House advisers, such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, recall that the military's consistent call in Vietnam was for yet more troops. Is McChrystal just doing the same now, they wonder?
Other players—such as Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—recall that "Vietnamization" was a strategy that very nearly succeeded in that war. (Arguably, it would have succeeded had Congress not pulled the plug on U.S. funding in 1973.) Anxious to keep support for Afghanistan among congressional Democrats, Levin is publicly pushing "Afghanization": training the Afghans' own forces must take precedence, he says, over the dispatch of more U.S. combat troops.
The other congressional Democrat with committee clout—John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—fought in Vietnam. His too-candid reminiscences of the free-fire tactics that his comrades adopted there in frustration at the amorphous conflict they found themselves fighting cost Kerry dearly in his 2004 presidential bid. As he has indicated in recent hearings, Kerry wants to find a way out of Afghanistan, though he doesn't yet know how.
Vice President Joe Biden listens to Kerry. Biden is pushing to limit the U.S. military role in Afghanistan to counterterrorism: kill the bad guys, while scaling back wider U.S. ambitions. In the internal debate, according to administration sources involved in it, Biden is arguing that how Afghanistan governs itself is not of primary concern to the United States. What matters is that Al Qaeda shouldn't again find sanctuary there. This, he argues, the U.S. can achieve with Special Operations Forces aided by deployment of the Predator strikes against Taliban leaders that are proving so successful in Pakistan.
The Pentagon is split. The military supports General McChrystal: Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. David Petraeus, McChrystal's immediate superior at Central Command, have said so publicly. After close to a decade in Iraq, the U.S. military believes it has learned the three tools to fight insurgencies: security, good government, and development. Kill the most determined insurgents and buy off the others; provide security to the locals; give the indigenous political leadership space within which it can cement the allegiance of its people by civic works and good government; and work to develop the country. That's the counterinsurgency strategy—COIN, in military-speak—that Obama embraced back in March. McChrystal was sent to carry out this strategy. "OK," says the military leadership, "give McChrystal what he needs to do the job."
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is more ambivalent. Gates has by far the longest apprenticeship in government and foreign policy of anyone in the Obama administration other than Richard Holbrooke. Gates observed, from CIA headquarters, the Soviet debacle in Afghanistan through the 1980s; and, as he has made clear in countless interviews, that colors his thinking now He is skeptical of the enduring American belief that foreigners will accept a U.S. presence because its forces are, at least in America's own eyes, the good guys. Afghans, Gates recognizes, regard all foreigners as unwelcome intruders. Gates also draws from Vietnam the lesson that any effort to mold an indigenous government to American desires is almost certainly fruitless. So, his aides say on background, he is wary of a further commitment of U.S. troops, especially one conditioned on the assumption that Afghan President Hamid Karzai can be cajoled into the "good governance" that is an essential leg of the military's COIN strategy. On the other hand, Gates sees a stable Afghanistan as probably essential to the security of Pakistan, which has a nuclear arsenal. It is a vital American interest to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of Al Qaeda or its allies. So, for lack of a better strategy, Gates supports McChrystal's request for more troops. At the least, he reckons that will buy time for the U.S. to train the Afghans' own forces.
The State Department is institutionally divided. Hillary Clinton's goal as secretary of state is to rebuild the United States' international standing by emphasizing its commitment to improving the lives of ordinary people around the world. So she supported the ambitious political and social goals for Afghanistan and Pakistan that Obama laid out in March. Clinton has subcontracted questions of strategy, though, to Richard Holbrooke. As Obama's "special representative," he's State's point person for what Holbrooke calls "AfPak."
Holbrooke's views are complicated—just how complicated emerges from a profile of him by George Packer in the latest New Yorker. He was one of those running Obama's initial strategy review, which laid out those ambitious goals. He seems to have viewed that as a necessary statement of admirable U.S. objectives—a way to focus efforts—rather than as a blueprint of realistically attainable goals. For Holbrooke's views, too, are grounded in Vietnam, where he was first posted as a young Foreign Service officer in 1963. Holbrooke, his colleagues say, is torn. He does see Afghanistan as, potentially, another quagmire. He told a friend earlier this year that he fears it's poised to be for Obama a rerun of Vietnam in 1965—the brink of LBJ's fateful decision to commit massive numbers of troops. So he has been searching for an alternative to McChrystal's troop request, so far without success. Fundamentally, Holbrooke shares Gates's views. The U.S. cannot walk away from Afghanistan as it did from Vietnam. The stakes are too high. A stable Pakistan is a vital U.S. interest; so is containing Al Qaeda. But achieving those will depend primarily on actions by the Afghans and Pakistanis themselves, and the U.S. has limited leverage over either government.
In Pakistan, Holbrooke has accepted the view of Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen that building a relationship of trust with the Pakistani military is essential. (Holbrooke has gone further politically than Mullen could, reaching out to leaders of the political opposition in Pakistan.)
In Afghanistan, Holbrooke has been more optimistic than Gates in believing that the U.S., by which he means himself, may be able to pressure Karzai into reforming the Afghan government. Karzai's wholesale vote-rigging in the August election has led colleagues in the administration to question Holbrooke's confidence. But what are the alternatives? Holbrooke and Gates agree that the Afghanization of the war—training Afghans to defend their own country—is the military option to follow. But insurgencies, certainly those that shade into civil war, as the struggle does in Afghanistan, have to be resolved by political means. Holbrooke, his colleagues say, sees an eventual political settlement as the only plausible outcome in Afghanistan. The problem is how to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table—and whether the U.S. public has the patience to wait.
If Vietnam has given those who recall it a visceral sense of how uncertain U.S. prospects are in Afghanistan, the experience of Iraq gives others, especially in the military, grounds for optimism. Washington's current debate over Afghanistan mirrors the debate over Iraq in 2006. Almost nobody—George F. Will being a notable exception—is proposing that the U.S. just quit. The search, as in 2006, is for a strategy to turn around a deteriorating situation on the ground. Now, as in 2006, one option is a "surge" of American forces. The question, now as then, is whether there are options that will cost fewer lives and dollars. In 2006 advocates of the surge won the debate; and the upshot in Iraq has been striking success: a strong Iraqi leader, a maturing and raucously democratic political system, and a steady decline in intercommunal violence. The issue for Obama is whether Vietnam or Iraq offers the better guide to decisions on Afghanistan.