Taking his time on Afghanistan makes sense for Obama

Has President Obama dillied and dallied too long in making his decision on whether to send additional forces to Afghanistan? Republicans led by former Vice President Cheney increasingly assert as much.

In fairness to GOP friends, some of the criticism may be politically useful by keeping up the pressure on any administration officials who may wish to hem and haw indefinitely. But such a charge cannot yet be leveled at Obama himself.

The president's patient approach to date this fall, in considering Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for perhaps 40,000 more U.S. troops, is entirely warranted. The decision is clearly momentous. And only by delaying a decision do we retain leverage with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who reluctantly agreed to a runoff election partly as a result of U.S. pressure. This is not an argument for indefinite delay. But a gradual decision made over the next few weeks may be the smartest way to go of all possible approaches for the administration.

I make such an argument with some trepidation because there are some genuinely undesirable options apparently getting a good hearing among administration officials. The first is the idea that we can somehow narrow our approach to a counterterrorism — only mission, giving up on the broader goals of helping to build a stronger Afghan state while protecting the Afghan people. In theory this option would help us keep U.S. troop numbers constant for now and perhaps reduce them soon. The problem is that we have already tried this strategy and we have seen it fail.

The strategy also fails even on its own terms because a small U.S. and NATO presence focusing just on going after al Qaeda extremists cannot protect the human intelligence networks — or, ultimately, the airfields and bases — needed to make it work in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Another unconvincing approach is the idea that we can train Afghans more rapidly to do most of the fighting themselves. In fact, this concept is sound — but it is already NATO policy. McChrystal strongly endorses it. In fact, the idea of hastening such training is perhaps the most important reason for which he wants additional American forces in Afghanistan. Those who would deny McChrystal his troops in order to emphasize training of Afghan units more assertively are missing the core logic of the general's own strategy.

Finally, can't we reconcile with those “moderate Taliban?” It depends what you mean. It is difficult to know what compromise we could forge with people who want to put women in burqas, punish apostates with death, and otherwise return Afghanistan to perhaps the most oppressive government this side of North Korea. Yes we do need to try harder to make amends with local resistance fighters. But the actual Taliban, based in Quetta, Pakistan, are not amenable to compromise. They have not moderated their ideology and they have already set up a shadow government in much of Afghanistan.

So if all these popular ideas are not so good, how can Obama be right? First, those who imply he is weak-kneed should recall that he has added more forces to Afghanistan in his first months in office than the Bush administration managed in more than seven years.

Last winter, military leaders told Obama that perhaps 70,000 to 80,000 U.S. troops would be enough to implement a major new strategy, and he gave them most of what they wanted. Now they say they need perhaps 110,000 for roughly the same strategy. These kinds of military judgments are inherently imprecise. But Obama is entitled to think twice about their methods for determining force requirements under the circumstances.

The most crucial point, however, is this: We cannot win this war without a viable Afghan government. Even if we start doing everything right (and I believe McChrystal is leading NATO remarkably well), Karzai needs to improve his act. Assuming he wins re-election, Karzai needs to fire the worst of the worst among his corrupt cohorts, appoint independent inspectors general within key government agencies, and create ombudsman to allow citizens to complain when they see graft or suffer poor government services.

So Obama needs to retain some leverage over the Afghan president — who has stated that he favors additional NATO troops and other resources — for a few more weeks. Perhaps we need not delay the entirety of the U.S. decision that long. But we do need to play some of our cards in a patient and savvy way for a while longer.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is one of four defense experts who contribute monthly columns to The Washington Examiner.


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