A report in Wednesday's New York Times alleging that the CIA is secretly paying Ahmed Wali Karzai, a man reputed to be one of Afghanistan's biggest drug barons, throws into sharp relief the most crucial question the administration now faces in Afghanistan:
Should America continue its policy of working with warlords and disreputable power-brokers in an attempt to use their influence to advance US interests? Or should it instead focus on protecting the Afghan people – in many cases from the very warlords the US has supported in the past?
The answer is not as simple as such a bald statement might suggest, and it is precisely this question, in its many forms, that President Obama is now considering.
Scenario A: Karzai is the bad guy
General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, wants Mr. Obama to send at least 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan to carry out a classic counterinsurgency. This strategy is centered on protecting the Afghan people and giving them the security needed to rebuild local economies and – in the long run – create stability. That stability would give Afghanistan the will and the capacity to repel Al Qaeda, says McChrystal.
But if this is America's goal, making secret deals with men like Mr. Karzai, the Afghan president's brother, could be more than counterproductive. It could be disastrous. The Times quoted Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, the senior American military intelligence official in Afghanistan, on what it means:
"If we are going to conduct a population-centric strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves."
In short, the counterinsurgency approach in Afghanistan is predicated on America being "the good guy" from the Afghan perspective. This is "winning hearts and minds." If the Afghan population believes the Americans are truly looking out for their best interests, some will be more likely to lay down their weapons, others will be more likely to give intelligence on militants, others may take up arms against militants themselves – as some did in Iraq.
This is the chain reaction a successful counterinsurgency must create. But if the US is backing – or is even perceived as backing – drug barons who flout justice and breed corruption and violence, the military will never win the trust of Afghans.
A blog on the Center for a New American Security notes: "You can be darn sure that if we think that AWK [Ahmed Wali Karzai] is the CIA's guy, the Afghans most certainly believe that to be the case."
Yet this approach, even if carried out diligently, is hardly assured of success. The corruption in Afghanistan is so endemic, its population so poor and uneducated, and the solutions so complex, that even 40,000 troops might be vastly too few to turn the war's momentum.
Or, in the view of some, too numerous.
The first US official to resign over US strategy in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, said the US is simply mired in a 35-year civil war that it does not have the ability to end – and that additional troops will only make things worse.
This school of thought leads to Afghan strategies exactly the opposite of McChrystal's. If the Afghan war cannot be won through counterinsurgency, then the best the US can do is to try to keep Al Qaeda on the run – most probably through special forces operations and missile strikes by drone aircraft.
In this "counterterror" strategy most prominently advocated by Vice President Joe Biden, "assets" like Ahmed Wali Karzai can be invaluable. According to the Times, Karzai has helped the CIA reach out to Taliban who might be persuaded to switch sides or give valuable information, and he has also helped organize a paramilitary strike force.
In Karzai's hometown, Kandahar, US allies are few. The province is the spiritual homeland of the Afghan Taliban. But Karzai is a man of enormous influence, and he would give the CIA leverage that it otherwise might not have.
"U.S. strategies that focus on the Al Qaeda network and targeted counterterrorism strikes are unlikely to shift this pattern of selective engagement with Afghanistan's power-brokers," says an Oct. 28 analysis by the Center for American Progress.
It goes on to quote analyst Peter Bergen, testifying to Congress: "We need not fewer warlords, but more warlords" to prosecute a successful counterterrorism campaign.
This is how the CIA operated in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, using the most powerful mujahideen commanders to prick the Soviet Army. It is how the CIA operated during operations to topple the Taliban – using the Northern Alliance, with its coterie of often-unsavory strongmen – as the tip of the military spear.
In truth, US soldiers and spies have tussled over tactics and chains of command in almost every war the US has fought since the CIA's founding, and the CIA has long been prized for its willingness to work with corrupt officials in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq.
In Afghanistan, there are few men of consequence that are not in some way connected to some terrible act or ally. It is the result of Afghanistan having been perpetually at war since 1979.
Now, Obama is wrestling with the question of whether the attempt to break this cycle is practical or profitable for the United States. The matter of what to do with Ahmed Wali Karzai is central to that decision.