Why Focus On Afghanistan? U.S. Policy Analysis

October 9, 2009

People have asked me why my writings are focusing on Afghanistan so strongly. Well, besides the fact that Afghanistan continues to dominate the media headlines, the truth of the matter is that the United States and NATO forces could be involved in the country for years to come. I believe people should be well informed so as to take part in national and international debates. Currently, there is a lot of debate over what an increase of around 40,000 American troops would do for the country’s security: would it help in resolving the issues of violence in the country or would it increase the Afghan resistance to NATO’s presence? There are legitimate reasons for argument on both sides of this debate. Here are the intellectual arguments:

U.S. President Barack Obama seems to be genuinely undecided on the issue of committing more troops. This is because there is a split among the President’s advisers as to the way forward in Afghanistan. General Stanley A. McChrystal asserts that America needs a fully resourced, man-power intensive counter-insurgency with tens of thousands of additional troops. This view is backed by his boss, General David Petraeus as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen. On the other side of this debate is what has become known as the “Biden Camp.” Here, Vice President Joe Biden argues for a more narrowly focused counter-terrorism strategy. Biden and his camp would prefer that the Military spend their resources going after al Qaeda by using drones (remotely piloted aircraft) and special forces. This would go on without the kind of increase McChrystal has asked for. The Biden camp includes Rahm Emanuel, who is the president’s chief of staff as well as National Security Advisor, General Jim Jones.

There is talk in the Biden Camp of separating the Taliban from al Qaeda. Here, some of President Obama’s advisors believe that it is possible to  get many of the Taliban to break off ties to al Qaeda. The argument is that the Taliban have learned their lesson since 9/11. They had Afghanistan, and because of bin Laden and al Qaeda, they lost the country. The argument goes that the Taliban would not make the same mistake twice. Therefore, the U.S. could trust the Taliban to side with America and not al Qaeda in the future. Although this view is being asserted strongly, it is understood that it is a minority view among the President’s advisors. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has articulated that he believes the return of the Taliban would give al Qaeda more room to regroup within the region.

The dominant view within the Military was articulated by Senator John McCain which is that one cannot separate the Taliban from al Qaeda. The two groups have a long and storied history together. An attempt to separate the two would not be logical or successful.

A thoughtful approach to committing more troops should always be necessary. Clear objectives need to be set in Afghanistan as in any theatre of war. The military should identify with relative clarity what strategy will have the highest probability of success. However, there is a genuine nervousness among the Military brass as to the length of time Obama’s deliberations are taking. McChrystal has said in his assessment that the United States has about 12 months to turn Afghanistan around. A lengthy delay could lead to the Taliban insurgency gaining further strength among the Afghan population.

McChrystal has stated that he needs the increase in troops to disrupt, dismantle, and eventually defeat al Qaeda with the intention of preventing al Qaeda from ever returning to Afghanistan. Yet, there are competing sets of assumptions as to what it will take to reach such a goal.

To sum up, General McChrystal has voiced his idea of a counter-insurgency on one side of the Afghanistan debate; yet, Mr. Biden has voiced his idea of a counter-terrorism strategy which would be narrower in scope and definition.

While a counter-terrorism approach is important, I personally believe that it is not in-itself a sufficient strategy to stabilize the region. But questions like those voiced in the counter-terrorism strategy need to continue to be asked. These questions pose strategic alternatives to accomplishing the Afghanistan mission. Such questions include: how would a transfer of power to Afghan national security forces take place?; is there a way to create a coalition with the war lords?; and, what would a power-sharing relationship with the Taliban look like? These kinds of questions are important for constructing strategic back-up plans should the need for one arise. However, when the debate is over and done with, the option with the highest probability of success should be the one that is chosen. At this time, that looks to be McChrystal’s comprehensive counter-insurgency campaign.


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