The Secret Details of Obama's Afghan Plan
President Barack Obama’s long-awaited Tuesday speech on Afghanistan offers lots more troops to the military and some promising rhetoric for war skeptics. He will authorize between 30,000 and 36,000 new U.S. troops, depending on prospective NATO contributions, and an additional 10,000 more in a year if necessary, according to administration sources. Obama will stress that these and other moves to strengthen the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda should be seen as a boost to friendly Afghans and not as an open-ended American commitment. The boost will provide the time and the incentives for America’s Afghan allies to prepare themselves to assume primary responsibility for continuing the battle.
I believe that the Obama approach is reasonable, and about the most that can be expected, given the powerful conflicting pressures. The plan deserves the support of the American people.
I would have preferred no more than about 15,000 troops, mainly trainers, a two- to three-year plan (not a fixed timetable) for Kabul to take the combat lead, and much more toughness toward our two-faced Pakistani “allies.” And the administration sources stress that the precise details and rhetoric of Obama’s plan won’t be set until the president gives his speech Tuesday night at West Point. But based on what they’ve told me, I believe that the Obama approach is reasonable, and about the most that can be expected, given the powerful conflicting pressures. The plan deserves the support of the American people.
The United States already deploys about 68,000 troops, and there are an additional 36,000 or so of various stripes from friendly countries. General Stanley McChrystal, NATO’s commander in Afghanistan, asked for about 44,000 additional American troops on the ground. The 30,000-plus that Mr. Obama will approve is about the maximum that could actually be deployed to Afghanistan in the next 12 months. And if the general can clearly demonstrate he still needs more in a year, the president will signal his willingness to consider an additional 10,000. But that would be the limit, the end of it.
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• Ret. Col. Ken Allard: Why We Should Screen Muslim SoldiersThe strategy to govern the employment of these forces, Mr. Obama is expected to say, will be much like the counterinsurgency approach he originally approved back in March—the approach McChrystal reaffirmed in his recent “secret” leaked report. That means clearing areas and holding them with military force, followed by civilian and economic programs. He will also underline the anti-terrorist component of this strategy—namely the focus on attacking al Qaeda itself, a point stressed relentlessly by Vice President Joe Biden during the nearly two-month policy review.
But there are two additional elements to the strategy. U.S. forces will expedite the long-neglected training of Afghan military and police forces. And the new 30,000-plus surge of U.S. troops will be used to beat up on the Taliban enough to make it easier for the Afghans themselves to manage down the road.
Mr. Obama will also announce a change in the American goal—without calling attention to the new objective. His goal up to now has been to “defeat” al Qaeda. The new mission: to “dismantle and degrade” the terrorists. It is a more modest and achievable goal, intended to weaken the terrorists’ ability to operate in the South Asia region. The United States will continue to take the lead over the next few years to achieve this goal in Afghanistan. But after that, the president is expected to say, the main burden will fall on Kabul—though with continuing American economic and military support. As of this point, it’s not clear whether Mr. Obama will condition his new strategy on President Hamid Karzai cleaning up the corrupt and ineffectual Afghan government. The words of caution and warning to Karzai will be in the Obama speech. But he likely won’t go so far as to say “shape up or else.”
Obama will also lay out a diplomatic track, aimed at building America’s ties to the countries of that region—from India, China, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and maybe even to Iran. The idea is to establish a kind of cluster to contain terrorism. It’s a good idea. There will also be a diplomatic track within Afghanistan, whereby Washington will support efforts by Kabul to strike political deals with “moderate” Taliban and to offer money to Taliban fighters as incentive for them to switch sides.
It’s unclear at the moment just how tough Obama will be with Pakistan. In effect, Islamabad has provided a safe haven for Afghan Taliban for more than a decade as a hedge against Indian encroachments into Afghanistan. As a result, Pakistan urges the United States to stay and fight in Afghanistan to keep the Indians out, but provides succor to the Taliban to hedge against an American withdrawal. So, the Pakistanis want us to stay in Afghanistan as they help the Taliban to kill our troops. It’s hard to see how Obama’s new strategy can work unless Pakistan’s leaders are brought to see for themselves the terrible consequences (the strengthening of the Pakistani Taliban extremists) of pursuing this duplicitous course.
All in all, and with its inevitable uncertainties, this new Obama strategy offers enough prospect of progress, if not success, for Americans to give it their support. As long as the president keeps his eye on the ball and transfers the main responsibility to friendly Afghans themselves—that is, making the war their war—he’s got my backing as well.
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.