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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Without more forces on the ground, the US can't gather the intelligence needed to strike high-level targets, Zinni says. More troops would bolster counterterrorism efforts in nearby Pakistan, and also help train Afghan forces so they could eventually take over security operations.Skip to next paragraph
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Opponents of the Afghan counterinsurgency have allies in high places – Vice President Joe Biden and possibly National Security Adviser James Jones, who signaled this summer that he didn't think more troops were the answer.
Their arguments were bolstered by allegations of fraud in the recent Afghan elections, which reinforce the view that Afghanistan's government is too weak a partner on which to build a counterinsurgency strategy. The elections cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai and his government, raising questions in the Obama administration about the wisdom of allying with a government perceived as corrupt.
But past events also weigh heavily on the debate. The new must-read among Obama's top advisers is a 2008 book about Vietnam called "Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam." As national security adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, the late Mr. Bundy supported deepening US involvement in Vietnam but had second thoughts later in life.
Afghanistan and Vietnam are similar, says Gordon Goldstein, the book's author and a former adviser to the United Nations. Mr. Goldstein points out that President Kennedy went against military advice when he moved to reduce American involvement in Vietnam before he was assassinated. His instincts were right, Goldstein says, though it remains unclear what impact Kennedy's reluctance to send troops into Vietnam would have had on the broader conflict.
"I don't think the strategy [of more troops] was a viable strategy in Vietnam and I don't think the strategy is viable in Afghanistan," he says. Former US commander of Afghanistan Dan McNeill has said that going by counterinsurgency doctrine, Afghanistan would need a force of at least 400,000 to win. There are currently 100,000-odd foreign troops in Afghanistan, not counting local indigenous forces.
Afghanistan's historic resistance to outsiders worries him, too. Both the British and the Soviets failed to hold the country, with the Soviets leaving in 1989 after 10 years fighting local insurgents. "Afghanistan is a small power that is extraordinarily resistant to great powers, the great power," says Goldstein.
Still, McChrystal's recommendations have strong backing from the top brass, including Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
That makes it harder for Obama to reject McChrystal's proposal. Doing so could alienate the military, says Robert Scales, a retired Army two-star general and military historian.
Mr. Scales says he thinks Obama will ultimately shoot down the middle and go for the hybrid option – what he calls "McChrystal Lite." That means sending in some more troops, but fewer than what McChrystal wants, and targeting key members of terrorist networks.
Retired general Zinni agrees. "They are in danger of buying into a counterinsurgency strategy and doing it on the cheap," he says.