Wednesday, September 23, 2009

An Afghan alternative?

By Michael J.W. Stickings

With McChrystal et al. pushing for a significant troop increase -- an irresponsible one, in my view, given that it's not clear anymore what the purpose of the war is -- this comes as something of a pleasant development:

President Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan, including a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan, officials said Tuesday.

The options under review are part of what administration officials described as a wholesale reconsideration of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago. Two new intelligence reports are being conducted to evaluate Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials said.

The sweeping reassessment has been prompted by deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and a dire report by Mr. Obama’s new commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal. Aides said the president wanted to examine whether the strategy he unveiled in March was still the best approach and whether it could work with the extra combat forces General McChrystal wants.

In looking at other options, aides said, Mr. Obama might just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he was not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to the anticipated troop request from General McChrystal. But the review suggests the president is having second thoughts about how deeply to engage in an intractable eight-year conflict that is not going well.

Yes, "testing assumptions." It is possible, of course, that the White House is just floating this development to give the appearance of serious internal debate -- and, of course, to make the president look good. I give full credit to the Times for considering this possibility, even if it credits it to anonymous "aides."

Still, I hope that Obama really is having "second thoughts" and that he is seriously considering alternatives to what the military brass want.

Given that this is now a war without a defined purpose, without a clear goal, and without an acceptable definition of what would constitute victory, the option of more troops -- and, with them, more war -- just isn't as desirable as it once may have been. And with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, or at least not improving in any real or sustained way, it doesn't make much sense to commit even more resources and to risk even more lives for the sake of what could become more and more of an insurmountable quagmire.

No one is saying -- well, I'm not saying -- that the U.S. should pull out of the region. Even if there is a significant troop drawdown, there are still the not insignificant matters of the Taliban, which is increasing in influence outside Kabul, and al Qaeda, which continues to find safe haven in the AfPak border region, to attend to. On this, Biden is probably right. Focus on narrower and more limited goals. Defend Kabul, perhaps, and target Taliban areas in Afghanistan, as needed, but address the greater threat of the terrorist stronghold, something the U.S. should have done a long time ago, when Bush et al. diverted attention and resources to Iraq.

Surely such a viable alternative like this exists. Obama would do well to consider the options, not just to rush into an escalation of a war that no longer makes much sense.

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