The Roads Not Taken

In unveiling his new strategy for Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama chose not to heed the advice of pundits and experts on all sides of the war, seeking a middle ground instead. Here are the five major options he rejected and why.

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy, and
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Pull Out Now!

The argument: Antiwar critics have argued that President Obama should not double down on a losing investment, and should rather begin a quick withdrawal of American forces from the country. Nearly 500 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, a 64 percent increase over the entire year of 2008. The Defense Department projects that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will cost U.S. taxpayers $46.9 billion in 2009 even before the "surge," as the country still attempts to recover from one of its deepest recessions since the Great Depression. And all of this blood and treasure is being expended in the service of an Afghan government that is widely seen to be losing credibility among the Afghan people due to its endemic corruption and reliance on warlords to remain in power. The August election, which was tainted by electoral fraud by Karzai's supporters, only provided further evidence that the United States does not have a reliable partner in this war.

Why Obama rejected it: A withdrawal of American troops, air support, and financing would likely mean a quick collapse of the Karzai government. As the Taliban inevitably secured control over the Pashtun-dominated regions of Afghanistan, the U.S. retreat would also leave many Afghans to their brutal form of justice. Ever since the 2009 campaign, Obama has referred to Afghanistan as the "central front in the war against terrorism." In February, as one of his first acts as president, Obama sent an additional 17,000 troops to the country. As he has consistently stated and demonstrated, he believes the war is vital to American security. And as his administration has made abundantly clear during the recent "strategic reassessment" of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a withdrawal of U.S. forces was never on the table.

Pull Out Now!

The argument: Antiwar critics have argued that President Obama should not double down on a losing investment, and should rather begin a quick withdrawal of American forces from the country. Nearly 500 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, a 64 percent increase over the entire year of 2008. The Defense Department projects that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will cost U.S. taxpayers $46.9 billion in 2009 even before the "surge," as the country still attempts to recover from one of its deepest recessions since the Great Depression. And all of this blood and treasure is being expended in the service of an Afghan government that is widely seen to be losing credibility among the Afghan people due to its endemic corruption and reliance on warlords to remain in power. The August election, which was tainted by electoral fraud by Karzai’s supporters, only provided further evidence that the United States does not have a reliable partner in this war.

Why Obama rejected it: A withdrawal of American troops, air support, and financing would likely mean a quick collapse of the Karzai government. As the Taliban inevitably secured control over the Pashtun-dominated regions of Afghanistan, the U.S. retreat would also leave many Afghans to their brutal form of justice. Ever since the 2009 campaign, Obama has referred to Afghanistan as the "central front in the war against terrorism." In February, as one of his first acts as president, Obama sent an additional 17,000 troops to the country. As he has consistently stated and demonstrated, he believes the war is vital to American security. And as his administration has made abundantly clear during the recent "strategic reassessment" of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a withdrawal of U.S. forces was never on the table.

Fully Resourced Counterinsurgency Strategy

The argument: Commanding Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s "low-risk option" called for a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy that would require an additional 80,000 troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. This dramatically expanded force, which would have more than doubled U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, would then have been able to train an increased number of Afghan security forces, develop effective governing institutions, protect the Afghan people, and take back Taliban strongholds. This was the platinum-plated strategy to win the Afghan war.

Why Obama rejected it: Leaving aside for a moment whether the United States can afford anything platinum-plated these days, the numbers requested in this plan just didn’t add up. It’s not even clear that the United States has that many troops to send to Afghanistan, even if Obama wanted to. The only way to increase the troop numbers that dramatically would be to extend tours of duty and reducing soldiers’ time away from the battlefield between tours — an option that, because of the intense strain it would place on the Army, may not be low risk at all. The problem is further exacerbated by Afghanistan’s lack of infrastructure, which makes it difficult to send large amounts of troops and equipment to the country quickly. In fact, many estimates suggest that sending 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in a three-month period is near the limit of U.S. logistics capabilities.

Accelerate the Training

The argument:  This strategy would call for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan — though not to fight the Taliban directly, but to develop the Afghan army and police into a self-sufficient fighting force. Senator Carl Levin has been a strong proponent of this plan, and has urged the United States to adopt the goal of expanding the Afghan army to 240,000 troops and the Afghan police force to 160,000 by 2012, levels that would more than double the size of both organizations. Levin’s proposal would aim to place an Afghan imprimatur on the war, undermining the Taliban’s argument that they are fighting a foreign U.S. enemy, while also limiting U.S. casualties.

Why Obama rejected it: Obama will indeed be sending thousands of trainers to Afghanistan as part of his troop surge, and is attempting to sell his new policy as an effort to get Afghans into the fight. However, the surge in trainers will only be a part, not the full extent, of Obama’s strategy, and the focus will be on quality, not speed and quantity. This is likely because the Afghan army and police forces are still widely believed to be too poorly trained and equipped to combat the Taliban on their own. (The Afghan police force, in particular, has been widely accused of corruption and abuse of power.) Without U.S. troops to protect Afghanistan from the Taliban in the short term, it is unlikely that Senator Levin’s radically expanded and more capable Afghan security forces would be able to get off the ground.

Counterterrorism

The argument: Advocates of this strategy, including Washington Post columnist George Will and, reportedly, Vice President Joseph Biden and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, argued that the weakness and dysfunction of the Afghan state make a true counterinsurgency campaign impossible. Under this view, the United States should draw down its forces in Afghanistan to a minimum and focus on attacking and disrupting al Qaeda through the use of quick raids by Special Forces teams and drone strikes. Drones have been used with great success — though not without controversy — against al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighboring Pakistan. Such a plan would minimize U.S. casualties and minimize U.S. ties to Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government, both of which would be attractive to President Obama’s political base.

Why Obama rejected it: Unlike Pakistan, the central government in Kabul would likely be unable to withstand the insurgency without international support. A minimalist strategy would leave the United States unable to prevent the Taliban from expanding its rural safe havens and seizing key population centers, compounding the counterterrorism challenge in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While antiwar liberals would surely applaud the new strategy, Republicans would be sure to lambast the Democrats for "abandoning" Afghanistan in the upcoming midterm elections.

Stay the Course

The plan: As FP’s own Marc Lynch writes, "Why choose between escalation or withdrawal at exactly the time when the political picture is at its least clear? Why not maintain a lousy Afghan government which doesn’t quite fall, keep the Taliban on the ropes without defeating it, cut deals where we can, and try to figure out a strategy to deal with the Pakistan part…"

Indeed, Obama has already authorized one Afghan troop surge this year, which has had some limited success against in operations against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan and, at the very least, the Kabul government doesn’t appear in danger of being overrun. Why not see if new military tactics and the increased diplomatic pressure on the Karzai government might have some effect before either going all in or abandoning the project altogether? U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry seemed to hold this view, sending a controversial cable to the White House earlier this month, urging the administration to hold off on sending new troops until the Karzai government demonstrated progress against corruption.

Why Obama rejected it: He had to do something. Obama campaigned for office attacking the Bush administration for getting bogged down in Iraq while allowing Afghanistan to deteriorate. With his generals desperate for more resources, it would be difficult for him to justify "muddling through," an option he once attacked his campaign rival John McCain for advocating. Public opinion is also turning against the war. As many as 69 percent of Americans now feel that the war is going badly, and expect Obama to take steps to win or end it. With the war about to enter its ninth year, their impatience is understandable.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.