Members of his national security team rightly stress that Afghan tribal elders and warlords have allied with the Taliban and other extremists not because of ideology or religion, but for reasons of self-interest. Therefore, those Afghans could be convinced to switch sides if the United States made it worth their while.
Working with Afghan tribal elders and warlords is sometimes characterized as a new approach, but the US has actually pursued it with mixed results since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. Before Mr. Obama seriously considers going further down that road, he should review those results carefully.
At first, Washington threw in its lot with local warlords who had amassed power and wealth in the 1980s and '90s. Unfortunately, the ceding of provincial administrations and police forces to the warlords proved disastrous in much of the country, as they robbed and raped with alarming frequency.
More recently, NATO forces have experimented with supporting tribal security forces or, in the case of several European countries, by paying tribes to refrain from violence. Some tribal security forces, particularly those with strong leaders or able American partners, have swept the insurgents from large areas. Others have used their authority to oppress neighboring tribes, turning them into insurgents. Still others, such as the Afghan National Auxiliary Police in 2007 and 2008, defected.
Tribes that took money in exchange for local cease-fires provided sanctuary to insurgents, enabling them to recuperate after combat and recruit additional fighters.
Because of the deals there has been a short-term reduction of NATO casualties. But local truces have not curbed the appetites of hard-core insurgents for violence elsewhere, so subsequent losses have outweighed any benefits.
Each Afghan valley has its own politics, with its own peculiar blend of warlords, tribal leaders, foreign fanatics, Afghan government personnel, and NATO troops. Allegiances can shift quickly, and often in ways known only to Afghans.
The elites in an Afghan province cannot be managed effectively from Washington, nor even from Kabul in most cases. Winning the tribes over is best left to Afghan provincial governors and Afghan and American battalion commanders, who can keep abreast of the shifting local dynamics and customize military and political actions accordingly.
In fact, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's review team has studied the opportunities for further cooperation with warlords and tribal leaders and deemed them an inadequate substitute for additional American combat troops. The facts on the ground tend to support that judgment. According to American officers in Afghanistan today, tribal elders will gladly take US money and assure the US that they are eradicating insurgents, but will not really take up arms against the insurgents, or even share where improvised explosive devices are located, unless the counterinsurgents can protect them and their families from reprisals.
Only by sending tens of thousands of additional American troops and partnering them with Afghan forces can the US provide the security the fence sitters crave.
So what can Washington do besides sending more troops?
It can help emplace governors and battalion commanders with agile minds and magnetic personalities. At the highest level, the US government can use its leverage to influence Afghan appointments and require the newly reelected Afghan President Hamid Karzai to delegate more personnel decisions to Afghans more inclined toward meritocracy, such as Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar.
The White House can also speed the deployment of top-flight American officers to Afghanistan as commanders and combat advisers, in order to improve the performance of American and Afghan forces.
McChrystal has complained that the Pentagon is taking too long to send him the people he needs, a troubling indictment of the military bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies, moreover, are still putting our finest counterinsurgency leaders behind desks for four or five years between combat tours.
Obama should follow the example of Winston Churchill, who in 1952 sent top leadership talent from across the British Empire to Malaya and consequently transformed failure into success within a matter of months.
Counterinsurgency is leadercentric warfare; its outcome is largely determined by the talents of local leaders. We owe it to our troops and to our Afghan friends to put the very best American and Afghan leaders in the provinces, because only those leaders can craft and execute the panoply of actions required to win the war.