The South Asia Channel

Arguing about Afghanistan

By Steve Coll I have a new post up on Think Tank on the Afghan strategy debate. The Obama administration’s first round of internal debate and external defense of its Afghan war strategy, which occurred during the President’s first weeks in office, went pretty smoothly. Vice President Joe Biden, among others, did voice private skepticism ...

By Steve Coll

I have a new post up on Think Tank on the Afghan strategy debate.

The Obama administration’s first round of internal debate and external defense of its Afghan war strategy, which occurred during the President’s first weeks in office, went pretty smoothly. Vice President Joe Biden, among others, did voice private skepticism about the prevailing enthusiasm for applying counterinsurgency doctrine as a way to "fix" the Afghan war effort-among other things, Biden feared that the American people would not support the war long enough for such an approach to succeed, since the average length of a counterinsurgency campaign is about fourteen years, according to one study. In the end, however, the immutability of the 2009 Afghan presidential-election schedule and the need to challenge the Taliban in an attempt to create conditions for a plausible vote, as well as the freshness of Obama’s mandate to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, quieted most of the skeptics, within the Administration and in Congress. Very early on in his Presidency, the President announced one specific plan-to send more troops-and later his Afghan policy team released a strategy white paper that endorsed certain principles for the coming political-military campaign.

Beginning over the next few weeks, a second round of public debate about the war is likely to unfold in Washington, and this time, it seems certain, it will be noisier. Essentially, the argument will be about means and ends-that is, what are plausible and desirable goals for the United States in Afghanistan, and how many U.S. and NATO troops will be required to achieve them, and for how long?

Later this month or early in September, Stan McChrystal, the American general who was appointed in May to take command of the war, will deliver a strategic assessment. Apparently, this document will not make a specific request for more troops; if such a request emerges, it will come forward on a separate track through the Secretary of Defense, perhaps in the early autumn. It seems likely that any request for more troops will be framed by the Pentagon and the White House to emphasize the need to rapidly train and expand Afghan forces, rather than to argue for a prolonged direct combat role for U.S. and NATO forces. In any event, these reviews, as well as a promised set of benchmarks for Afghan strategy due from the Administration, are likely to generate much fiercer resistance of Obama’s war strategy than the President endured last winter and early spring. Previously quiescent Republicans, the anti-war Democratic left, and Democratic political types worried about the President’s political capital and about the war’s potential electoral consequences in 2010 and 2012 are all likely to be much more skeptical about proposals for more troops and deeper investments in Afghanistan, if not outright active in opposition.

Read the rest of my post over at Think Tank.

Steve Coll is the president of the New America Foundation and a staff writer at the New Yorker. 

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