Do or Die in Afghanistan

The president faces a looming deadline on whether to send more troops, but Les Gelb says the real question is: What’s his exit strategy?

A top U.S. academic and adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, says that victory in Afghanistan requires 45,000 additional U.S. troops, in addition to a doubling of forces by the Afghani government. Leslie Gelb says the real question is: What’s Obama's exit strategy?

With most eyes fixated on the Afghan presidential elections, the much more fateful event—the decision on whether to send even more U.S. troops to that beleaguered country—is heading toward the White House. There isn’t much mystery about who will win those elections or their consequences. Hamid Karzai will keep the presidency and guarantee the persistence of a totally ineffectual and corrupt central government in Kabul. But the troop increase that new U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal will recommend to President Barack Obama is still up in the air. And Obama’s decision will determine whether the United States will move to turn the war over to the Afghans within the next three years or whether it will shoulder the burden of that war indefinitely.

Not even the smartest person in the world, not even the diviner of the most complicated novels, could possibly figure out how the U.S. military handles these situations without knowing how the U.S. military handles these situations. It is one of the great Kabuki games, or “now you see it now you don’t” games. The White House asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Michael Mullen, who asked General McChrystal (all with the involvement of CENTCOM regional commander David Petraeus), for an assessment of the military situation and a recommendation on whether additional U.S. forces will be required to meet the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. It all seems very straightforward… but it isn’t. It’s necessary to step back a little further, to paste in additional background, in order to see the games that are about to be played—and their consequences.

Obama’s decision will determine whether the United States will move to turn the war over to the Afghans within the next three years or whether it will shoulder the burden of that war indefinitely.

When President George W. Bush departed the scene, 32,000 U.S. troops were in and authorized for Afghanistan. In March 2009, Obama increased that total by 21,000, and the total U.S. number is expected to reach 68,000 by the end of this year.

Now, Obama gave these U.S. forces what he described as a more specific and limited mission than the fuzzy one that governed their actions under Bush. The new goal was to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country,” where they could once again attack America and its allies. To Obama, this may have seemed “clear and focused,” but it was anything but “limited.” U.S. troops could be there forever “to ensure” terrorists would never regain a foothold in that complicated and cavernous country, backed up by a safe haven in Pakistan. And besides, to achieve these “limited” goals, Obama reaffirmed the American commitment to all the nation-building goals that had supposedly vanished with the vanishing Bush. As a practical matter, then, the U.S. mission was to do virtually everything—defeat the enemy permanently so it could not return and also turn Afghanistan into a democratic, free-market (except for the poppies) paradise, or at least the Afghan version of such a paradise.

Our senior military commanders are nothing if not smart about these matters. They fully realize they can’t do the nation-building job and so they keep asking for, or, better, pleading for, the necessary civilians and civilian resources to do the job. Without doubt, they need the additional civilians to do nation-building, but military pleas are also a way of shifting responsibility to the civilian side. In fact, civilians are arriving in Afghanistan at a steady pace, given the difficulties of recruitment and security.

Now, McChrystal is supposed to present his assessment of the battlefield situation. By all indications, it will say the situation is very bad, extremely difficult, but not utterly hopeless. The military never says “hopeless.” The word suggests that they would be giving up, and that’s simply not in their vocabulary. So McChrystal is stuck with the second task of saying how many troops he would need to actually accomplish his mission. And here comes the beauty of the military decision-making process.

McChrystal and the other generals know they are sitting on a political powder keg and can’t confront their president with a request he doesn’t want and can’t meet. At a minimum, they’ve got to give him options. The game is to say that “if you want to do X and Y, and take certain risks, then you need this number of additional troops; and if you want A and B, and to take additional risks, then you need an even higher troop level.” McChrystal’s options are likely to run from a low of about 4,500 additional troops to as many as 27,000 additional new ones.

At some point in the next days, the White House will let the generals know the number they’re looking for, which could possibly be zero combat troops, but several thousand new military trainers. Some bargaining will follow with some back and forth between McChrystal and his superiors at the White House. They will settle among themselves, and then the press leaks will begin about what McChrystal or the military commanders “really” wanted. And Obama will be accused of not providing all the troops our commanders needed to get done the job that Obama himself mandated.

It won’t be easy to escape this now-classic model of presidential decisions on requests for increased troops in times of war. But the real tragedy of what will be happening in the next two-to-four weeks on this issue could well be what doesn’t get discussed at all—namely the real strategic importance of Afghanistan, the sensible American commitment to meet those needs, and a coherent strategy for fighting a near-impossible war in that most inhospitable of countries.

If President Obama just looks at this troop decision in isolation, he may well miss his last reasonable opportunity to seriously review the strategy he set forth in March. And whether he knows it or not, that strategy promises neverending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, and repeated pressure for more U.S. troops and dollars.

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Obama and his colleagues should open up the agenda to re-ask themselves the most basic questions. What exactly do we gain by keeping al Qaeda and the worst of the Taliban out of Afghanistan when those terrorists can hit us even now from Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia? Are U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely to prevent al Qaeda from coming back even in 2020? Or are we seriously planning to turn the responsibility over to the “good” Afghans themselves? And if we’re planning a transfer of responsibility, why aren’t those plans spread out in detail both in public and in private for Afghans and Americans to see? Unless these plans are made absolutely specific and endlessly repeated, Obama will never be able to Afghanize the war.

Sure, there will be risks in turning over responsibility to the Afghans, risks which we already run by al Qaeda’s presence in other states. But it’s not as if America’s departure from a combat role in Afghanistan and resumption of a military support role instead would leave us defenseless and powerless. As I’ve written on a number of occasions, Washington has many instruments of power that can be used in this and similar situations. The United States does know how to help friends with military and economic aid to take care of themselves when that is our real goal. Americans know how to contain threats, just look at Washington’s success in the Cold War. And also stare at the fact that there are ready-made allies for containment against the Taliban among its neighbors in Russia, China, India, and yes, especially Iran. There is an alliance to be put together here that can box in the Taliban and its friends. And Americans also know how to do deterrence and practiced it with great success during the Cold War and its aftermath. Anyone who holds territory is fully aware of what U.S. military might can do to them if they harm American soil.

And the last power instrument, which Americans often fear for the silliest of political reasons, that it might look like weakness, is to attempt negotiations with adversaries, to divide and conquer them as the British did for centuries. People often try to engage me in defining a “moderate” Taliban. I won’t go through such an abstract discussion. My answer always is that we should put $275 down on the table, $50 more than Taliban fighters are now being offered by the bad guys, see if they pick it up and see who they fight for the next day. If they take American money and don’t fight against our side, then they are “moderate” Taliban.

President Obama and his able colleagues may have other and even better ideas. The point is they owe it to themselves, and more they owe it to us, to reconsider all the basic questions about where they are going and what it will cost the rest of us. If he does not move in coming weeks to Afghanize the war, it will soon and irrevocably become America’s war and Obama’s war.

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.