03.19.09

The Taliban Ticking Clock

The US needs a new strategy for Afghanistan—fast. Leslie H. Gelb on why the current White House plan shouldn’t be the only option on the table, and why Congress must intervene.

We now actually have real strategic choices on Afghanistan in front of us—from victory to withdrawal and deterrence. And the news media at least is paying some decent attention to the choices. But the Obama White House seems determined to make its basic policy decision on the war as quickly as possible, and Congress seems typically AWOL, absorbed happily in throwing economic hand grenades at everyone but themselves.

The question is whether we still have the leadership capacity to get ourselves together and have such a debate before it’s too late—before the United States pours a great deal more lives and treasure into the Afghan War. Because we seem to be out of the habit and the skills to conduct serious policy debates, we would need some uncharacteristically quick and organized hearings from key Congressional committees. And legislators would have to prepare to ask systematic questions rather than make the usual bloviating speeches. The media would have to do its part and give the advocates the time and space to present their positions, instead of the usual he says-she says exchanges.

We have to hope that the White House is looking seriously at all the choices. But most likely they are focusing ever more narrowly on their own strategy, which is now pretty much agreed upon.

These are the choices that have now been developed:

1) Doing Whatever Is Necessary to Win
The return of the Taliban would lead to a totally unacceptable risk that Afghan territory once again will be used by al Qaeda terrorists to attack America and its friends. Americans have to make up their minds “to win” and devote the necessary resources to an all-out counterinsurgency effort. Anything less would lead to a collapse of friendly Afghans and the American position in South Asia. As Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman write in Thursday’s Washington Post, “We need a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency approach backed by greatly increased resources and an unambiguous U.S. political commitment to success in Afghanistan over the long haul.”

2) More Afghan Effort, More U.S. Help, More Diplomacy
This is the administration’s current approach. While avoiding an absolute commitment to “victory,” as President Obama called for in the presidential campaign, he now aims to “ensure” that Afghan territory won’t be used by international terrorists. He will back a massive build-up of Afghan forces to 400,000, a significant increase in U.S. economic programs and American civilian presence, and unspecified troop increases that could take the U.S. total from about 52,000 to 80,000 or more. He would seek to split everyday Taliban from their extremist leadership and from al Qaeda, and he would continue to build a ring of allies against Afghan extremism to include the likes of Russia, China, India, and even Iran, as well as escalate military action against Taliban safe havens in Pakistan.

3) The Middle Way Between Escalation and Scaling Back
The goal of this approach is not entirely clear, but seems akin to the Obama administration’s. As its main proponent, counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen argues in his new book The Accidental Guerrilla, “it would be the height of folly to commit to a large-scale escalation now,” but withdrawal would equally damage U.S. interests. Basically, this option would hold on to where we are while seeking to split up the Taliban. Kilcullen urges the president to avoid making any big decisions until after the Afghan presidential elections of August.

4) Surge, Split, Deter, and Contain the Enemy, and Withdraw
This choice, now mainly advocated by myself, would set the American objective not at eliminating the international terrorist threat from Afghan soil, but at significantly diminishing it and making it manageable by other applications of U.S. power. Specifically, it would increase various forms of economic and military aid over the next couple of years, as well as U.S.-backed counterinsurgency operations in order to give friendly Afghans confidence to fight for their future, with a plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops after about three years. It would seek to split the enemy by granting the “moderates” some power in Afghanistan and “renting” as many others as possible. As even Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledges, “There's some evidence that a fair number of the Taliban are not committed Islamists or extremists, and so they may be able to be wooed away.”

Washington would also need to come up with serious ways to punish the Taliban if it were to again support international terrorism, and to contain the extremist ambitions by building a coalition of neighbors along the lines of the Obama strategy.

The biggest divergence in these four strategies actually starts with the goal itself. As long as the objective is along the lines of the first three strategies—that is, of effectively eliminating the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, the American commitment will remain open-ended. The only strategy that has any give on goals is the fourth one. And the fourth one is the only one to acknowledge the fact that no matter what happens in Afghanistan—the American and its friends could just as well be attacked by terrorists operating right now from Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

All four strategies agree on the need for some level of increase in American commitment over the next two or three years to stabilize the situation, to send a message to the Taliban, and to give a boost to friendly Afghans. Obviously, it’s hard to tell how much overlap there would be once decisions got down to details. All except the McCain/Lieberman approach agree on the need to try to break the Taliban apart and to sever its ties with al Qaeda. The common thinking here is that it is feasible for Washington to placate enough of the Taliban by restoring some power in Afghanistan so that they would no longer support international terrorism—or that it’s at least worth trying this divide-and-conquer tactic.

All agree on the need to build a coalition against extremism and the drug trade with China, Russia, India, and Iran. The administration is already making good progress on this.

All agree that Pakistan represents a far more serious threat to American security than Afghanistan. This is because Pakistan has nuclear weapons and a very weak and corrupt government, and is increasingly subject to encroachments by extremists.

All agree that the answer here rests on the performance of Pakistani moderates.

The main split comes between the first three approaches and the last one over a commitment to withdrawal of U.S. combat forces over, say, three years. The issue that really has to be joined here is why we would have to commit to destroying the terrorist threat in Afghanistan while we are living with it and living with it through other means elsewhere.

There really are the makings here for a serious debate on what the United States should do in the coming years. We have to hope that the constant meetings in the White House are looking seriously at all the choices. But most likely they are focusing ever more narrowly on their own strategy, which is now pretty much agreed upon. So, it’s up to the key and relevant committees in Congress to launch searching and systematic hearings around these options. The legislators know, just as the rest of us do, that if they don’t do this now, they are sure to find themselves playing the blame game once again two or three years from now after many more lives and dollars are lost forever.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of the forthcoming HarperCollins book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy, a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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