Here Are the Actual Afghan Strategies on the Table

Months of deliberation about a way forward in Afghanistan are now quickly winding toward a conclusion. On Wednesday, President Obama met with his national-security team to hear final arguments over the war strategy. One thing is clear: the fight will continue in Afghanistan for years to come. But several questions remain: Where should the fight take place? How many troops are needed? And, perhaps most importantly, whose war is it? (Article continued below...)

Plan: Just Train
Surge size: 10,000 troops
On the low end of the scale, the most pared-down option on the table is sending a small amount of additional American troops that would be tasked largely with training Afghan security forces. It would be a significant hedge, as American firepower, which General Stanley McChrystal has requested, would essentially remain the same as it is now. Stepping up the fight against the Taliban would be a nonissue, because there would be no additional brigades to augment any offensive. It has been said that a fraction of the new troops would be hunting terrorists, but on the whole, these would be more American G.I.s doing nation building. Or, army-building, as it were.

Plan: Secure the cities
Surge size: 20,000 troops
This strategy would focus primarily on battling Al Qaeda and concede that dismantling the Taliban is not a core focus. For years, Americans have been struggling to build stronger provincial governments that are tied to President Hamid Karzai's leadership in Kabul, and this would seek to capitalize on the fledgling networks of power. Additional American soldiers would be based in major population centers in the south and east of the country. "A logical reason for the surge is to show commitment," says Clare Lockhart, who has consulted the administration in policy deliberations. "Because, to some extent, the Taliban has gained ground by saying that the West isn't serious." Securing the cities could allow for measurable results from a concerted, narrowly focused mission.

Plan: Obama's war
Surge size: 30,000 troops
A major role that American troops will play in the coming years will be training the Afghan Army and local police forces. This middle ground could provide a few additional brigades to do that. But if the president decides on the middle road, his real aim could actually be taking ownership of the war. "Perceptions in this case matter," says Rick Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who recently served in Afghanistan. "It would put him more in control from a geopolitical perspective." The move wouldn't be as much of a slight to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's original request for 40,000 more troops as it would be a declaration that soldiers are only one part of a long-term solution. In turn, NATO allies would be expected to pick up some of the slack. Fewer troops could also mean more regional stability, as increased fighting will almost inevitably push more insurgents across the border into Pakistan.

Plan: Countrywide counterinsurgency
Surge size: 40,000 troops
This would fulfill the very public requests by General McChrystal, the commander in Afghanistan. Reports vary, but much of the military leadership—including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—believes this is the way to go. It would spread American troops out across Afghanistan in an effort to stabilize the entire country. The aim would not be to destroy the Taliban as much as it would be to expand into the north and west—to protect Afghan villagers and to win them over from the radicals. The risk, however, is that as the campaign grows more broad, the measures of success become harder to define.

Prominent figures like Vice President Joe Biden have argued against additional troops, but at this point it seems that the status quo (68,000 troops) is not even under consideration. Ultimately, however, all of the strategies have three problems. First, it will take the better part of a year to actually get more troops fully situated in Afghanistan, so that means that the first real signs of any successes could well elude us until at least 2012. Second, by the military's own counterinsurgency standards, you need 20 troops for every 1,000 locals. That would mean 670,000 troops; even with 150,000 local Afghan forces, 100,000 U.S. troops, and 30,000 NATO soldiers, we're not even close. And finally, no matter how many troops head for the land known as a "graveyard of empires," civilian leadership—like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or special envoy Richard Holbrooke—have been frighteningly quiet about what a sincere, long-term, political and economic solution will look like, much less how it could actually work.