Zakaria on a Third Surge in Afghanistan

Dick Cheney has accused Barack Obama of "dithering" over Afghanistan. I suppose if the president were to quickly invade a country on the basis of half-baked intelligence, that would demonstrate his courage and decisiveness to Mr. Cheney. In fact, it's not a bad idea for Obama to take his time, examine all the options, and watch how the post-election landscape in Afghanistan evolves. (Click here to follow Fareed Zakaria)

The real question we should be asking in Afghanistan is not "Do we need a surge?" but rather "Do we need a third surge?" The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in January 2008 was 26,607. Over the next six months, the Bush administration raised the total to 48,250. President Bush described this policy as "the quiet surge," and he made the standard arguments about the need for a counterinsurgency capacity—the troops had to not only fight the Taliban but protect the Afghan population, strengthen and train the Afghan Army and police, and assist in development.

In January 2009, another 3,000 troops, originally ordered by President Bush, went to Afghanistan in the first days of the Obama presidency. In February, responding to a request from the commander in the field, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops into the country. In other words, over the past 18 months, troop levels in Afghanistan have almost tripled. An additional 40,000 troops sent in the next few months would mean an almost 400 percent increase in U.S. troops since 2008. (The total surge in Iraq, incidentally, was just over 20,000 troops.) It is not dithering to try to figure out why previous increases have not worked and why we think additional ones would.

In fact, focusing on the number of additional troops needed "misses the point entirely," says a senior military officer who has studied Afghanistan up close. "The key takeaway" from his assessment "is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate." That officer is Gen. Stanley McChrystal, and that assessment is his now famous 66-page memo to the secretary of defense. The quotes are from the third paragraph. These changes in strategy have just begun.

To understand how U.S. troops had been fighting in Afghanistan, consider the Battle of Wanat. On July 13, 2008, a large number of Taliban fighters surrounded an American base in the village of Wanat in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. After a few hours of fierce fighting, nine American soldiers lay dead, the largest number killed in a single engagement in years. The strategic question surely is, "Why were we in Wanat in the first place?" Tom Ricks, the superb defense expert, points out that the area around Wanat is a mountainous region with few people, many of them hostile to outsiders. So, he asks, "Why are we putting our fist in a hornet's nest?"

In fact, General McChrystal has since pulled U.S. forces out of Wanat. Washington Post reporter Greg Jaffe, reporting on the town a year later, concluded recently that "ceding territory to the Taliban is more effective than maintaining small, vulnerable bases in forbidding terrain. In the past several weeks, U.S. commanders, based about six miles outside the village, have detected growing friction between Wanat residents and the Taliban commanders responsible for last year's attack." In other words, let the Taliban try to set up bases in these remote areas with prickly locals. NATO forces can then periodically disrupt the Taliban rather than the other way around.

Advocates of a troop increase act as if counterinsurgency is applied physics. General McChrystal's team, having done the mathematical calculations, has apparently arrived at the exact answer. There is no room for variation or middle courses. It's 40,000 troops or no counterinsurgency. This is absurd, as is best demonstrated by the fact that senior military officers had assured me at various points over the past year that with the latest increase in troops (first to 42,000, then 68,000), they finally had enough forces to do counterinsurgency.

In fact, the crucial judgments that have to be made involve what the troops will do and how much of Afghanistan to cover. Ricks said to me, "Why not do the Petraeus plan [counterinsurgency] for the major population centers and the Biden plan [counterterrorism] for the rest of the country?" That sounds like a middle course that is smart and practical, which might need some more forces or perhaps can make do with the almost 100,000 already there. Obama should carefully consider these and other options before racing out to demonstrate how tough he is.