At Last, An Afghan Plan

Chopper crashes killed 14 Americans Monday, ratcheting up pressure on Obama to decide on a surge. Leslie H. Gelb reports he's ready to act—but not even his advisers know what he'll do.

10.25.09 11:12 PM ET

Chopper crashes killed 14 Americans in Afghanistan on Monday, ratcheting up pressure on Obama to decide on a surge. Leslie H. Gelb reports he's ready to act—but not even his advisers know what he'll do.

President Obama is set to make his “final” decision on Afghanistan later this week or early next. Presumably, his public orations will follow shortly thereafter — and not a moment too soon, given the mounting angst at home and abroad about the delays and uncertainties. He has spent the last month in endless meetings brilliantly dissecting everyone's facts and everyone’s arguments, including General Stanley McChrystal's. Yet, for all the back and forth, it’s not clear that any of his principal national security advisers (Secretaries Clinton and Gates and National Security Adviser Jim Jones) knows exactly where he’s coming out. Perhaps he’s shared his gut feelings with political intimates like White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod. Perhaps he still hasn’t made up his own mind.

Full counterinsurgency capability is a mirage. McChrystal might just keep asking for more American troops every year. Transforming Afghanistan's government and society. is way beyond our power.

The White House does a good job of muffling presidential deliberations. And they’ve put the fear of God into those contemplating unauthorized leaks. So, to divine what’s really going on, it is necessary to sift slivers from the either. No White House can totally squash that revealing either. Here’s what may be in Mr. Obama’s heart of hearts, if he could decide policy solely on the merits:

  • Stick with the goal in Afghanistan of defeating, or better yet, neutralizing al Qaeda (not much choice here) through both a counterinsurgency strategy (a la McChrystal and stepped up counter-terrorism a la Vice President Joe Biden). But begin the process now of turning the war over to friendly Afghans. Back this up with a surge of around 15,000 or so new U.S. troops on top of the roughly 70,000 already authorized. But shift operational emphasis sharply from increasing reliance on U.S. forces to seriously arming and training all friendly Afghans, giving them primary combat responsibility. And strive for a more toned-down and realistic version of nation-building, so that America can be in more of a supportive role in a couple years.
  • Make even more U.S. aid available for the government and army of Pakistan if they’ll fight hard against the Taliban, clean up their act at home and commit to improving the lives of their people. Avoid all rhetoric suggesting that somehow America can determine or is responsible for Pakistan’s fate.

These are much more modest and attainable objectives than Obama’s earlier proclamations of a “fully resourced” “war of necessity.” It’s not a radical shift in policy. In no way does it mean retreat or defeat. It is a policy geared to a reduced, but long-run American presence in this region--a presence politically sustainable in the United States and sufficient to combat ongoing threats. Its underpinnings are far more realistic than the assumptions of the McChrystal strategy: Afghans will never be able to create and keep a 400,000 plus-member army, plus hundreds of thousands of reliable police. So, full counterinsurgency capability is a mirage. McChrystal might just keep asking for more American troops every year. Transforming Afghanistan's government and society is way beyond our power. It’s their culture, their history. And McChrystal’s military strategy can’t work without these non-military miracles. Finally, staying in Afghanistan forever is not the best or only path to save Pakistan from the Taliban. If Pakistan’s leaders don’t see their own vital interests, their very survival, in preventing a Taliban victory, no, repeat, NO American policy in Afghanistan can provide the missing incentives. The McChrystal strategy promises not victory, but an endless and uncertain struggle against a terrorist enemy that can already attack us from places outside Afghanistan.

Shirin R. Tahir-Kheli: Obama’s Pakistan Problem

Patrick Hennessey: Of Course More Troops Are Needed

Elise Jordan: Why Afghans Are Turning on America

But the middle course that may be in Mr. Obama’s mind has its own problems—mostly political in nature. Though it makes practical sense, it may not get him out of the political fix he’s put himself in with the American military. From the military’s perspective, they’re just doing what the boss originally asked for. In March, he spoke of Afghanistan being one of America’s central security threats and fully endorsed a counterinsurgency strategy. Then he went so far as to fire his commander in the field and give the job to Gen. McChrystal for the express purpose of fighting an all-out counterinsurgency effort. Now, McChrystal—backed fully by regional commander General David Petraeus and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen—is asking for a minimum of about 40,000 new troops to do the job Mr. Obama dispatched him to do. The president’s political difficulties worsened last week after Defense Secretary Bob Gates engineered the endorsement of NATO’s defense chiefs for the counterinsurgency strategy and presumptively for the 40,000 additional troops as well.


The President is already embroiled in domestic fights over the economy and health care reform plus a bevy of international trouble spots. Can he now go against military advice on the only way to win the war? Can he afford to ignore his military’s advice for what they say they need to carry out his assigned mission?

If President Obama’s past decisions are prologue, he'll seek a middle ground. He tried to do that on health care reform, but there was no Republican bipartisanship to help him out. He may have similar trouble finding partners on Afghanistan. And he is bound to calculate that the military can hurt him politically far more than disgruntled liberal Democrats who want out of Afghanistan entirely.

What is to be done? How can he square the foreign policy and international security realities with political imperatives? He tried cajoling and compromising with the military. It didn’t work. His only course now is to stop maneuvering for their blessing—and act like a commander-in-chief. Call the military brass into the Oval Office and let them see a president of the United States in action, a president for more than just Afghanistan, one who has to contend with threats around the world and America’s troubles at home. Remind them of what they know well: that we all have got to stand together in America’s interest, and as president, he has the responsibility to define what those interests are. Tell them that our nation cannot afford disunity and discord. The generals and admirals are good men and real patriots; they will respond to a strong presidential lead. As for the American people and the larger political context, most Americans (excluding the 30 percent crazies) understand that there are no good or easy solutions in Afghanistan. They will stand by Mr. Obama if the president advances a clear policy that shows them the war won’t be endless and that the president can and will continue to protect vital American interests. Most Americans don’t expect miracles, just a sense of realism and common sense.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), 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.