As President Obama weighs his options for the future mission in Afghanistan, his options include — but are not limited to — to two discrete strategies.
Within the administration, backers of counterterrorism favor targeting al Qaeda and other bad actors directly — maintaining a smaller footprint, a limited military presence, and a narrower mission that uses pilotless drones and other methods, that ideally would allow for earlier troop withdrawal.
Those calling for a counterinsurgency argue their strategy has a better track record: Bring the civilian population into the process with incentives to root out the terrorists, work with local military and police with an eye toward shifting the burden back to the Afghans, while shoring up the country with infrastructure and other aid.
“Advocates for a small-footprint counterterrorism strategy ignore the fact that it has failed in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past,” said Jim Phillips, a terrorism expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Any argument that this chuck-and-duck strategy would work now is really unfounded.”
Counterinsurgency, the approach embraced by Obama from the time he took office until recent week, is favored by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, along with other military and some Cabinet officials. It would cost more and take longer to accomplish than a counterterrorism mission.
With public support for the war eroding and his own party sounding balky about funding increasing troop levels, Obama has been looking most often like a convert to counterterrorism — a strategy also backed by Vice President Biden.
But Obama is getting lots of advice — including from former rival Sen. John McCain. The president recently reached out to the Arizona Republican for advice on Afghanistan strategy.
McCain told ABC's “Good Morning America” that he is pushing for a counterinsurgency-based mission.
“We're talking about the ink blot strategy where you go into the populated areas, you clear out the bad guys, you hold the area, and you gradually expand as the expanded Afghan army and police take over these responsibilities,” McCain said. “That's what we did in Iraq, and that's the classic counterinsurgency.”
Still, Obama's choices are not entirely limited, and his decision-making practices suggest he could split the difference and create a sort of hybrid — combining a limited footprint at current or only slightly higher troop strength with counterinsurgency tactics.
White House officials have said the Afghanistan strategy is a work in progress expected to take at least a few more weeks of discussion before Obama makes a decision.