The Cable

White House nearing decision on Afghanistan; Kerry says McChrystal plan “reaches too far, too fast”

As Barack Obama met with his principals to review their Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy Monday for the sixth time, administration sources told The Cable that the White House hopes to announce a decision on whether to send more troops before the president departs for Asia on Nov. 11 – Veterans’ Day — but cautioned that the date ...

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WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 26: Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) speaks about Afghanistan at the Council on Foreign Relations, on October 26, 2009 in Washington, DC. Sen. Kerry spoke about his recent visit to Afghanistan and U.S. policy in the region. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

As Barack Obama met with his principals to review their Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy Monday for the sixth time, administration sources told The Cable that the White House hopes to announce a decision on whether to send more troops before the president departs for Asia on Nov. 11 – Veterans’ Day — but cautioned that the date is by no means set in stone.

As for whether Sen. John Kerry is taking over Afghanistan policy, according to the White House, he’s just helping out. After months of the administration delivering tough messages to Kabul through envoys such as Richard Holbrooke and Joe Biden, a fresh voice isn’t such a bad thing, the narrative goes.

“It’s a good cop, bad cop routine,” one administration official said, acknowledging the strained personal relationships some other Obama officials have with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai following the marred presidential elections from August and the subsequent dispute over how to deal with the massive vote fraud there.

Regardless, after personally mediating a constructive way forward by working personally with Karzai last week, Kerry’s views on Afghanistan, which haven’t always been in line with the administration’s, are now getting much more attention.

For example, he said upon returning that no announcement on troop decisions should come before the Nov. 7 runoff elections in Afghanistan.

And today at the Council on Foreign Relations, Kerry got out ahead of the administration’s ongoing strategy review, arguing clearly for a limited counterinsurgency strategy focusing on population centers and resourced below the levels that Afghanistan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal is calling for.

“We cannot and we should not undertake a manpower-intensive counterinsurgency operation on a national scale in Afghanistan,” said Kerry, D-MA, sounding a lot like his Senate cohort Carl Levin, D-MI, who has also advocated for a strategy centered around building up Afghan forces, not adding U.S. combat soldiers.

“I am convinced, from my conversations with General Stanley McChrystal … he understands the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area,” Kerry went on, “But I believe his current plan reaches too far too fast.”

Kerry said that the key questions were whether or not there was a credible Afghan force to partner with, whether local leaders who were on board, and whether the U.S. would follow a troop increase with increased development assistance.

Overall, his speech very much expressed an interest in narrowing the goals in Afghanistan and separating “hardcore” Taliban from those that could be convinced to lay down arms.

“Absent any truly good choices, we have to ask ourselves the question, what is doable, what is possible, and not set some impossible, far out of reach, or hole-digging strategy,” Kerry went on, eschewing the idea of defeating all the Taliban or building a “flawless democracy.”

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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