Afghanistan is Obama's war now

Facing a host of bad options, Barack Obama is poised to take ownership of a war that will inevitably shadow his presidency.

President Obama has called Afghanistan a "war of necessity" and the central battlefield in the fight against Al Qaeda and its network of violent extremist groups. Some of his earliest moves in office were to craft a new strategy for the conflict, to hand-pick diplomats and generals to implement it, and to throw 21,000 more U.S. combat troops into the fight. Then the bloodshed spiked, the chaos worsened with fraudulent August elections, and an urgent request for 40,000 additional troops -- and conceivably as many as 80,000 -- landed like a grenade in the White House Situation Room.

If Obama approves the 40,000-troop increase requested by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, allied troop levels would near the peak deployed during the Iraq war. Little wonder that senior White House aides have been nervously eyeing polls showing that a majority of Americans now oppose sending more troops, and no surprise that they are reading books on Vietnam, where U.S. soldiers fought and bled for five years after the 1968 Tet offensive arguably broke the will of the American public.

As the administration reconsiders its strategy for Afghanistan, everyone understands that the United States stands at an important crossroads in the "long war" against violent Islamic extremism. And Obama's decisions are framed -- and boxed in -- by two pivotal moves made by his predecessor: President Bush's 2003 decision to invade Iraq, thus his failing to finish the job against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan; and his 2007 decision to "surge" troops in Iraq to stave off almost certain defeat there. The Iraq war leaves Obama with exhausted troops, not to mention a war-weary public and fewer political and economic resources with which to fight in Afghanistan. And the Iraq surge -- despite the fact that the extra troops were but one ingredient in the strategy -- gives the military and Obama's Republican opponents a precedent that he can ignore only at the risk of being called weak.

"Clearly the decision on what to do in Afghanistan will be the most difficult Obama has yet to make, and I suspect the most difficult of his presidency, for the simple reason that there are no good options," said Paul Pillar, a former career CIA analyst and a counter-terrorism expert now at Georgetown University. In its internal deliberations, Pillar suspects, the administration is discovering that it's far easier to point out the weaknesses in someone else's strategy for Afghanistan than to propose a successful plan of its own.

"I'm encouraged that the administration is exploring a lot of variables in painstaking detail, however, and questioning some basic assumptions about the war in Afghanistan," he said. Pillar argues that the core issue is not whether McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy is appropriate to the mission of defeating Al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan. "Rather, it's whether we as a nation have the resources and stamina to continue a war that at eight years and counting has already lasted longer than ground combat in Vietnam. Polls suggest that Americans are fast losing patience with this war."

War fatigue has cast a long shadow over the administration's deliberations on Afghanistan, raising fears that events in an unpopular war could eclipse the considerable promise of Obama's presidency. The controversy over McChrystal's public comments and the leaking of his classified assessment to the media; the sharp-elbowed jockeying in Congress between opponents and supporters of the proposed surge in troops; and the alarmed statements by officials in the region and by NATO allies over the administration's perceived waffling all point to the high stakes involved. Fairly or not, and regardless of whether the commander-in-chief chooses to pull back, stand pat, or increase forces, Afghanistan is about to become Obama's war.

"All presidents would like to focus on their domestic agenda, and they all learn that whether or not you care about foreign policy, it cares about you," said Peter Feaver, who served on Bush's National Security Council staff during the Iraq surge in 2007. "Whatever direction the president decides to go now, Obama is going to own Afghanistan. And that means it's going to start crowding out other parts of his agenda."

Losing Ground

After weeks of intense deliberations and five sessions with his top national security advisers, odds are that Obama will eventually support McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy and his request for tens of thousands more troops. The strategic and political risks weigh against a radical departure from that strategy, or a rejection of the military and diplomatic leaders the administration chose just last spring.

Already Obama has informed congressional leaders that he will not substantially reduce the approximately 68,000 U.S. troops who will be in Afghanistan by the end of 2009. And he hopes NATO allies will keep their 32,000 troops in the country. Yet sustaining that level may become untenable as the situation worsens. This year has already proven by far the most costly in terms of U.S. and allied casualties, and the Taliban now controls or contests increasingly broad swaths of Afghan territory. An intelligence estimate given to the White House indicates that the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan has nearly quadrupled since 2006 (from 7,000 to 25,000), The Washington Times reported. In his stark, 66-page assessment of the situation, McChrystal warns that unless the Taliban's momentum is checked in the next 12 months, the war may be irretrievably lost.

Given that deteriorating situation, it's hardly surprising that the White House staff is experiencing buyer's remorse over Afghanistan. After the administration's review of the war last spring, Obama trumpeted a new strategy that narrowed the primary goal to "disrupting and defeating" Al Qaeda. Less was made of the fact, however, that McChrystal believes achieving even that limited goal requires a classic counterinsurgency strategy involving thousands of ground forces to secure population centers and difficult nation building by civilians.

Obama's national security team is now questioning nearly all the fundamental assumptions underlying such a counterinsurgency strategy. Most notably, it has explored the option of adopting a much narrower counter-terrorism strategy focused on striking Qaeda leaders in Pakistan's border region. Other options under consideration include accelerating the handoff of security responsibilities to the Afghan army and police; empowering regional tribal leaders and warlords; cutting deals with "reconcilable" elements of the Taliban to brunt the momentum of the insurgency; and enlisting the help of regional powers to lessen the war's burdens. At first glance, each option holds out the tantalizing promise of doing less and still not losing in Afghanistan.

In its internal and external deliberations, the Obama team has also challenged long-held conventional wisdom on the war. If the Taliban regained power in Afghanistan, would it really risk offering sanctuary again to Al Qaeda, given the U.S. wrath it incurred in 2001? Given Al Qaeda's greatly diminished status and sanctuary in Pakistan's tribal region, would it truly matter if the group did regain greater freedom of movement in Afghanistan? What if the nation-building quotient of counterinsurgency doctrine is just too difficult in one of the poorest, most illiterate countries in the world, a place with few of the functioning institutions or traditions of nationhood? Finally, would the deployment of even 40,000 additional U.S. troops be enough to cover this vast, geographically imposing land without breaking the back of already exhausted U.S. ground forces?

That serious people advocate each of those options and arguments points to the gravity of the situation. Experts who have wrestled with the challenges in Afghanistan caution, however, against expectations that any one element of today's holistic counterinsurgency strategy offers an easy fix in isolation.

Anthony Cordesman is the longtime national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, and is one of a group of outside advisers brought in by Gen. McChrystal last summer to help develop his counterinsurgency strategy. "A lot of these proposals for shifting to a counter-terrorism strategy or handing security responsibility to Afghan forces are primarily arguments for not increasing U.S. troop levels as opposed to real options, because they are decoupled from the realities and complexities of the situation on the ground," he told National Journal. "How are you going to target insurgent or Qaeda leaders when their networks are dispersed and they are deeply embedded in cities, and it's impossible to identify them without boots on the ground gathering intelligence? What schedules, plans, and density of assets are you going to put behind building Afghan security forces? As long as this ongoing debate on strategy is decoupled from resources and measures of effectiveness, it will remain a purely philosophical argument. Unfortunately, wars are rarely fought between philosophers. And this really is a 'worst-case' war."

Lessons In Counterinsurgency

When McChrystal was asked whether he could support the narrower counter-terrorism strategy favored by Vice President Biden that uses armed Predator drones and Special Forces units to target Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, his reply caused a furor. "The short answer is no," he told an audience at a London think tank. Such a narrow focus would lead to "Chaos-istan," said McChrystal, who was later quoted in Newsweek warning against half-measures. "You can't hope to contain the fire by letting just half the building burn."

McChrystal's comments raised a valid question about the propriety of a field commander publicly advocating a position while the White House was still reviewing overall war strategy. His comments, however, reflect a deeply held belief in U.S. military ranks -- forged over the past eight years in the crucibles of Iraq and Afghanistan -- that "whack-a-mole" operations targeting individual terrorist or insurgent leaders are important but insufficient when confronting a full-blown insurgency.

Current military thinking holds that once insurgencies reach a critical mass in unstable societies, counterinsurgency tactics of "clear, hold, and build" are required to win back public support for the government by providing persistent security, economic development, and basic services. Or, as the adage goes, the military has to drain the swamp in which insurgents swim beneath the surface. Those counterinsurgency imperatives were written into official military doctrine by Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the Iraq surge and head of the U.S. Central Command. They are featured prominently in war college curricula and are taught at military training centers. More important, counterinsurgency concepts now inform the combat experiences of a generation of U.S. military officers.

According to a senior officer in the Special Forces, which along with the CIA are primarily responsible for targeting terrorists, counter-terrorism operations are extremely difficult to conduct without the presence of ground troops to gather human intelligence on the whereabouts of bad guys and to protect the populace from reprisals for their cooperation. In that sense, such strikes are an important enabler of a wider counterinsurgency campaign, helping to keep terrorist or insurgent leaders off-balance to buy time for strengthening indigenous security forces and government institutions.

"The argument that you can just focus on counter-terrorism strikes with Predator drones and Special Forces operations ignores the fact that if you were going to search the planet for the single most qualified person to execute such a plan, you would pick Stanley McChrystal, and he doesn't think it's feasible," said Frederick Kagan, a counterinsurgency expert at the American Enterprise Institute who was influential in helping to craft U.S. counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq. Kagan notes that McChrystal, as the head of clandestine Special Forces and CIA hunter-killer teams in Iraq, bagged the most-wanted Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"We actually tried the counter-terror approach for years in Iraq, where we had enormous numbers of classified forces hunting bad guys with the support of 150,000 U.S. conventional forces," Kagan said. "And even though we killed hundreds of bad guys in conditions far more conducive to counter-terror operations than anything you'll find in Afghanistan and Pakistan, violence continued to go off the charts until we faced a calamity. We learned the hard way that counterinsurgency tactics are what you need to defeat an enemy like this."

Narrowing The Target

Advocates of a narrower approach argue that current strategy needlessly conflates Al Qaeda with the Taliban militants who offered it sanctuary before 9/11. Although the groups maintain links to this day, Al Qaeda remains the only entity in the witches' brew of violent extremist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region that specifically targets the homelands of the United States and Europe for terrorist attack. Its goal is to coerce the West into withdrawing support from "apostate" regimes in the Muslim world. By contrast, the hydra-headed Taliban insurgency mostly aspires to gain power and influence regionally in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Certainly, U.S. counter-terrorism operations have scored a string of successes against Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan. Just since January 2008, U.S. air strikes in Pakistan's tribal and border regions have reportedly killed 15 top-tier Qaeda and Taliban leaders and 16 second-tier commanders. Dead senior leaders include the head of the Pakistan Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud; senior Qaeda commanders Abu Laith al-Libi and Mustafa al-Jaziri; Qaeda weapons of mass destruction expert Abu Khabab al-Masri; and Osama bin Laden's son Saad.

"We are conducting successful counter-terror operations in Pakistan without significant boots on the ground, as we have in places such as Somalia and Yemen, both of which could just as easily serve as a future sanctuary for Al Qaeda as Afghanistan," former CIA analyst Pillar said. "The bigger issue is whether the presence or absence of a physical sanctuary for terrorist groups makes that much of a difference in terms of protecting the American people from terrorist attack. In my view, it doesn't make enough of a difference to justify a long and costly counterinsurgency campaign."

Even if the United States and NATO withdrew from Afghanistan on an indeterminate timeline, and the country reverted to the state of civil war that characterized it in the 1990s, some experts believe that the threat to the U.S. homeland would remain largely unchanged. In this view, the Taliban would most likely prove just one of a number of militant groups fighting for power in a faction-riven Afghanistan. If the Taliban did eventually regain control, the group might prove reluctant to offer sanctuary to a greatly diminished Al Qaeda.

"First of all, Al Qaeda has been almost completely decimated, and if its remaining members came out of hiding in Pakistan and moved to Afghanistan, they would be easier to target," said Marc Sageman, the author of Leaderless Jihad and a former CIA officer who served as liaison to the Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in the late 1980s. Pointing to the insurgents' hit-and-run ambushes and roadside bombings, he doubts that the disparate groups fighting under the Taliban banner could march on Kabul as a coherent military force. Sageman also notes that the Taliban needed seven years to seize power after the Soviet Union left in 1989.

"Even if the Taliban took power and offered sanctuary to Al Qaeda, you wouldn't see the re-emergence of large terrorist training camps and bases for the simple reason that the Western powers would destroy them as soon as they were built," he told National Journal. "So for all those reasons, if our primary goal is to protect the U.S. homeland from transnational terrorists, I don't see any value added by a large counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan."

Underlying the growing skepticism of counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan are worries that the U.S. military has defaulted to an unsustainable and expensive paradigm of nation building. Given the strategic stakes involved once U.S. forces invaded Iraq, and the Bush administration's much-touted emphasis on spreading democracy as an antidote to the root causes of terrorism, a counterinsurgency campaign may have been the only viable alternative in Iraq circa 2007. Given the evident strain on U.S. ground forces and decline in public support, however, it doesn't necessarily follow that counterinsurgency will work in the much less hospitable environs of Afghanistan in 2009, or in the next ungoverned space the terrorists decide to occupy.

"On Afghanistan I cast my lot with the 'go home ... sort of' school," Steven Metz, a professor of national security affairs at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, recently wrote on National Journal 's National Security blog. "I've long held that an approach to counterinsurgency that is contingent on re-engineering societies that do not desire it is folly. That is, I believe, more true in Afghanistan than anywhere I can think of. If the true strategic objectives are to prevent Afghanistan from providing bases for terrorists who might attack the United States or the West, and to prevent Pakistan nuclear weapons from falling into their hands, there are much more efficient and effective ways to do that than attempting to re-engineer a medieval society. We could, in other words, develop a counter-terrorism strategy that is acceptably effective and efficient."

Keeping The Pressure On

Can the United States and its allies really keep Al Qaeda and associated groups at bay with a narrower counter-terrorism strategy? Certainly, Al Qaeda has failed to launch a follow-on terrorist spectacular on the United States since 9/11, or against Europe since the Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005. Yet virtually all major terrorist plots against the U.S. or Europe since 2005, including the recent arrest in Denver of suspected plotter Najibullah Zazi, share a common thread: links to Qaeda enablers and training camps in Pakistan.

One person who thinks that the surviving Qaeda core in Pakistan still represents the most dangerous threat in the global terrorist pantheon is Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, the federal interagency body that collates intelligence on terrorists. He recently testified before the Senate that the Qaeda "core is actively engaged in operational plotting and continues recruiting, training, and transporting operatives, to include individuals from Western Europe and North America."

As the Obama administration reviews the strategy in Afghanistan, officials are likely asking themselves what elements of current U.S. operations have led to increased success in targeting Qaeda leaders and thwarting terrorist plots hatched in Pakistan. According to some counter-terrorist and intelligence experts, key aspects include containing Qaeda leaders to a limited space in Pakistan's tribal areas where Western intelligence agencies can focus their intelligence-gathering assets. In the words of one expert, it's "like looking down a soda straw" at one region.

The effectiveness of armed Predator drones also depends on benign airspace and nearby bases to increase their "loiter" time over unsuspecting targets, and both are supplied by a willing Pakistani government and security services. Finally, and most important, the dramatic increases in successful strikes and thwarted plots point to improved intelligence-sharing between Western and Pakistani intelligence services.

All of those advantages could potentially disappear, experts say, if friends and foes see the United States as backing away from its commitment to the stability of Afghanistan. Regional powers and their proxies would almost certainly interpret such a strategic shift as a signal that Afghanistan is once again in play and that the United States cannot be counted upon.

"The larger issue that doesn't get talked about in this debate on strategy is the fact that any indication that the United States is thinking about bugging out exacerbates our two biggest problems in the region, which is the Pakistani government's reluctance to crack down on the Taliban, and corruption in the Afghan government," said Andrew Krepinevich, a counterinsurgency expert and the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "If the Pakistani security services think we're leaving, they will start cutting deals with the Taliban again as a hedge against India and Iran's influence in Afghanistan. Similarly, if [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai thinks we're heading for the exits, he'll never crack down on corruption because he'll need to cut deals with warlords to play them off against each other."

Marin Strmecki served as special adviser on Afghanistan to the Defense secretary between 2003 and 2006. "The problem I have with the length of time the Obama administration is taking to commit to a counterinsurgency strategy is that it will be read as weakness by regional actors and the insurgents themselves, and that sets in motion all the wrong kinds of dynamics," he told National Journal. In Afghanistan, different groups will look for regional sponsors to vie for power in a post-American environment, he said, likely signaling a return to a civil war of the type that first opened the door to the rise of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the 1990s.

"In Pakistan it's important to remember that the nexus of terrorist and extremist groups have three major goals," Strmecki said. "They are plotting attacks against the West, seeking to restore the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, and undermining the stability of Pakistan. We have to combat all three threats simultaneously, because as soon as you focus on any one at the expense of the others, the extremists will gravitate there. That's the problem I have with people who just want to focus on counter-terrorism -- you cannot neatly divide this threat."

Any doubts that the extremists are constantly probing for the perceived weakest link in that triad was dispelled this month. With the Pakistani army poised to launch an offensive against militants in the south Waziristan region and the United States distracted by the Afghan elections and strategy review, extremists in Pakistan lashed out with some of the boldest attacks of the conflict to date. Militants seized hostages at the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi, destroyed the World Food Program offices of the United Nations in Islamabad, and killed scores of people during a suicide bombing at a market in the Swat Valley.

"Despite whatever future we might wish for Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have only two fundamental interests there that are worth waging war to secure," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is also a member of McChrystal's strategic advisory team. "Those are keeping Afghanistan from becoming a base for extremists striking the West, or from destabilizing Pakistan. We tend to talk most about the former, but the second is the more important interest."

Certainly Al Qaeda and its affiliates could find sanctuary in other countries, and certainly the United States doesn't have enough combat brigades to send on counterinsurgency missions to all of those places. But Biddle believes that Al Qaeda poses a uniquely potent threat in the Afghan and Pakistani soil of its inception. "A terrorist and insurgency threat that takes root in Afghanistan is almost ideally suited geographically to destabilize Pakistan," he said. "In Pakistan itself you have an enormous country with an active insurgency and a large nuclear arsenal, and serious security challenges that the United States has very few tools to counter. In such a dangerous situation we should invoke the Hippocratic oath and at least do no harm. And if the Taliban were to collapse the government in Afghanistan and take power there, it would do serious harm to the government across the border in Pakistan."

Indeed, the recent attacks in Pakistan serve as a reminder that the wild tribal regions and ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan and Pakistan are not just any sanctuary. Those mountains and remote valleys launched the mujahedeen's great victory over the Soviet Union, hatched the 9/11 plot to attack the United States, and shielded Osama bin Laden through eight years of war and the world's most intensive manhunt. These areas were the birthplace of a dream to lure the United States and its allies into a military defeat on the home turf of the Islamic extremists, as a prelude to the toppling of local apostate regimes and a return of the Islamic caliphate. Just eight years into this long war, with the Taliban gaining ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Al Qaeda helping to unsettle Somalia and Yemen, it seems unlikely that bin Laden is reviewing his own long-term strategy.