More troops in Afghanistan? Naysayers gain clout with Obama
Obama faces pressure to choose an Afghanistan plan that doesn't call for huge commitment of troops.
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But in the past few weeks, a grim assessment from the US commander on the ground and flawed Afghan elections have strengthened the voice of the naysayers who warn of a costly quagmire – giving Mr. Obama pause. Obama now finds himself in a quandary, mulling over the options – from the full-blown counterinsurgency fight his generals advocate to a scaled-back, targeted approach more acceptable to critics of the Afghan war.
Amid calls from Republican lawmakers and even senior military offices to decide soon, Obama huddled with his national security team last week to determine the best way ahead. The delay in deciding indicates that the opponents have his ear.
It's no longer in America's interest to expend the resources needed to create a stable Afghanistan, critics say. Al Qaeda has left the country for neighboring Pakistan, leaving the United States and its allies to fight dangerous but less significant groups like the Taliban, they argue. Couple that with the time, lives, and money it would take to stabilize a country that's still a fragile patchwork of tribes, they add.
And for them, a key question is: How can the US be sure it will succeed where everyone from Alexander the Great to the Soviets have failed?
It's not worth it, says Andrew Bacevich, a former Army officer who teaches history and international relations at Boston University and who is a longtime critic of US foreign policy, particularly in Iraq, where his son died in 2007. He says American thinking on Afghanistan is too facile, particularly the idea that mounting a full-scale counterinsurgency there – with an initial surge in the number of troops – will prevent another 9/11-style attack on the US.
"The notion that fixing Afghanistan will somehow drive a stake through the heart of jihadism is wrong," says Mr. Bacevich, noting that Islamic militants flourish in many regions outside Afghanistan. "If we give General McChrystal everything he wants, the jihadist threat will still exist," he says.
The current debate is broadly bookended by two options: "double down" and send tens of thousands more US troops to mount a proper counterinsurgency, committing American resources for at least a decade to essentially build a nation from scratch, or walk back to a more targeted counterterrorism strategy that would conduct intelligence-driven attacks against Al Qaeda with minimal American "footprint." A third option, thought to be the most risky, is a hybrid of the two.
The first option, the counterinsurgency or so-called COIN strategy, is backed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan. His assessment suggests that as many as 40,000 more troops are required temporarily to defeat the insurgency, protect the Afghan population – a central premise of counterinsurgency – and create a viable ally out of Afghanistan.
Critics such as Bacevich lean toward the second, more targeted option. But other military experts worry that scaling back would be seen as a retreat, a sign of weakness that would invite Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan and plot more attacks.
"You give Al Qaeda some breathing room, you can bet they'll come after us," says Anthony Zinni, a former head of US Central Command who criticized the Iraq war but supports McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan. He is pushing for greater NATO support as well as reconciliation with some of the Taliban and other local groups to make the strategy work.