In the fierce debate on Afghan policy under way in the White House, the all-or-nothing types—both liberals and conservatives—have already lost. President Obama seems to be groping for some middle approach both on overall strategy and troop increases. The danger with middle courses is that they can turn out to be just a jumble of compromises and incoherent mush. But there is a middle policy on Afghanistan that is coherent and can meet a reasonable array of American interests in South Asia and around the world. President Obama signalled his move to a middle strategy in his Tuesday meeting with Congressional leaders. He told them that he was not considering any reduction or pullout of U.S. forces, telling liberals not to get their hopes up. And he stressed that the so-called Vice President Biden option— to simply go after al-Qaeda terrorists and downplay the war against the Taliban—was not so simple. There was much more to the Biden alternative, Obama said, and indeed it looks as if the White House is trying to build that approach into an overall new strategy, one that will not call for a very large troop increase.
Seeking a middle ground will mean arming and training not only Afghan-wide security forces, but warlords and tribal leaders as well. That course will call for negotiating proposals to split Taliban from al Qaeda leaders and Taliban leaders from each other.
If you watch television news or read most newspaper stories, you would think that a battle is raging between champions of a 40,000-troop increase and opponents of any increase in ground forces at all. But judging from the tidbits emerging from the sanctum sanctorum, U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has already lost his campaign to add 40,000 new troops to the 68,000 already approved. He lost because 40,000 is far too much, given the costs and political opposition to such a big increase at home—and because he made the fatal mistake of going public last week in London to fight for his cause.
The White House was furious at his trying to corner the president. You'd never know how angry White House officials are from the mild public rebukes. National Security Adviser James Jones, himself a former four-star general and commandant of the Marines, noted that McChrystal should proceed "through the chain of command." Defense Secretary Robert Gates urged generals in general to make their recommendations "privately." Despite the mild words, the anger was palpable.
• Tina Brown: Let’s Not Abandon Afghan Women• Stephen Holmes: Strategy in Aghanistan? What Strategy? There was no visible White House anger about the pressure from liberals and progressives to deny any troop increase at all. This administration, like its predecessors, simply ignores the pleadings of people from this end of the political spectrum when it comes to national security policy. Perhaps they shouldn't, if they remembered the tepid support of the left for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, which allowed Richard Nixon to win. Nonetheless, it's traditional among Democrats and Republicans alike not to pay much attention to this quarter of the foreign-policy debate.
So, the magic new troop number will be somewhere between 0 and 40,000. But all the principal players in this decision are being very circumspect about where they are trending. Even General David Petraeus, overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia, is keeping his number well-hidden. The military brass are talking among themselves and trying to find a comfort zone between 20,000 and 30,000. More importantly, the generals and admirals are waiting to see whether Obama and Gates will take a strong stand on a new troop level—or leave room for the military to push them around. As for Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke and Gates, they're likely to come out in the 10,000 to 20,000 range.
There is another debate going on at the same time—whether to change America's overall strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how many additional troops that would require. Again, those on either extreme of this debate are not carrying the day. The McChrystal camp—which includes many in the Pentagon as well as political conservatives—wants an all-out counter-insurgency effort. They want to have enough troops to clear and hold populated areas in Afghanistan. Further, they realize that in order to hold territory they're going to have to do—or rather the civilian side of the U.S. government will have to do—nation-building on a massive scale, i.e. fixing up the government, the economy and security forces at all levels. And that's the crucial requirement that is killing off the full counterinsurgency strategy: no one but true believers think for one moment that the United States can transform Afghanistan into a democratic, free-market paradise in three years or five or twenty. Afghanistan is not even a nation-state; it is a people, or more precisely, it's a bunch of loosely associated and rival tribes with the Pashtuns, the Taliban's tribe, comprising nearly half the total. By basing their policy on the impossible, the counterinsurgency group did itself in.
But Joe Biden's argument in favor of a counter-terrorism strategy has also fallen by the wayside. Few senior officials in this administration believe it makes any sense simply to go after al Qaeda, which is now almost entirely based in Northwest Pakistan. U.S. drones and special operations forces take their toll on al Qaeda across the border into Pakistan and that's a welcome development. But, Pakistan is not going to allow the United States to do much more than it's now doing--and it's not about to allow the U.S. to occupy this region of its own country to kick al Qaeda out. Islamabad is not about to tie down its troops in this forbidding region or do anything to jeopardize Taliban help in opposing India. Biden's idea is to take some of the money saved on Afghanistan and invest it in Pakistan, which has both extremists and nuclear weapons. But that won't fly much further than it already has. The Obama team is well aware that most of the money they provide to Pakistani leaders seems to stick to their pockets.
• Gerald Posner: Karzai Family Secrets • Peter Beinart: Afghanistan Is Nothing Like VietnamPresident Obama and his key advisers don't yet know exactly where they will come out on strategy and troop levels—other than that it will be a middle ground. The only way to make the middle course work is to give it a coherent purpose—a strategy that fits the circumstances and history of Afghanistan, that swiftly and systematically turns over more responsibility to the friendly Afghans themselves and gives them every chance of preventing another Taliban takeover of their country. That will mean arming and training not only Afghan-wide security forces, but warlords and tribal leaders as well. That course will call for negotiating proposals to split Taliban from al Qaeda leaders and Taliban leaders from each other. It will involve trying to rent as many Taliban fighters as possible by paying them much more than they now receive in monthly wages. It will also require Washington to do what it has done extremely well for over 50 years—deter enemies with the threat of very strong and credible punishment and contain them by forging alliances with countries in the region that share American interests against extremism and the drug trade. Finally, this strategy will entail sending about 10,000 new combat troops and several thousand dedicated trainers. This will help give friendly Afghans a needed boost in the near-term and keep the political pot at home from boiling over.
In order to work, this strategy must be directed toward making this an Afghan war, not an American war, over the next two to three years. It's hard to think of any other way to stop the Taliban and al Qaeda over time—so that they stay down even after U.S. troops leave. And the troops will leave, sooner rather than later, if history is any guide. This is not a strategy designed to lose the war quietly and slowly and cover it with policy flowers—much as Richard Nixon planned "a decent interval," as he called it, between American troops leaving Vietnam and Hanoi winning the war. It is a strategy to give the Afghans themselves a chance to win the war. After all, they are the only ones who can win it.
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.