By, Daniel LaGraffe
October 11, 2009
By, Daniel LaGraffe
October 11, 2009
With the wheels down on the tarmac in Copenhagen last week, President Obama and General McChrystal held a brief meeting aboard Air Force One. It was a moment that served the purpose of both men. The President demonstrated he is hard at work on the Afghanistan policy while McChrystal made his plea for more troops.
It was an extraordinary moment, marking a clear divide in opinions on US Afghan policy between the administration and its top man in Afghanistan. The entire policy is now under review. The US is at a pivotal point; the future of the war and the US role in the region is at stake.
Afghanistan has come to dominate public debate. It has its origins in two recent developments. First was the appointment of General Stanley McChrystal to Commander of the US forces in the country. The second was the creation of McChrystal’s assessment team. This team was tasked with assessing conditions on the ground, proposing a course for action, and to deciding on troop levels required to achieve the administration’s goals.
Though the assessment team’s report remains confidential, it has defined three alternative strategies in the public debate. The first is a counter-insurgent strategy, which places an emphasis on protecting the population and requires increased troop levels.
The second is a counter-terrorism strategy that puts the focus on the enemy and would allow the US to reduce its troop commitment.
The last alternative is complete military withdrawal. Advocates of this approach argue that this war is not in the US national interest and that the benefits of a continued commitment are not worth the cost of American lives.
It is imperative to remember that a military strategy is meant to achieve the President’s overarching policy goals. Not the other way around. If President Obama does not clearly define the US goals in Afghanistan, then the debate about strategy will be futile.
President Obama assigned General McChrystal with the responsibility of carrying out the Afghan mission successfully. But he did so without clearly defining success. As a result, US forces in Afghanistan are stuck in a holding pattern, in the direct line of fire, waiting for further orders.
The three strategies outlined above are not three different ways of achieving the same goal, but three different strategies whose outcomes will look significantly different. Each strategy has its merits. At the same time, each of them is guilty of making the same mistake: determining the path without knowing where it leads. How do you suggest a strategy without knowing what this strategy is meant to achieve?
President Obama must define US goals in Afghanistan. Policymakers can then choose the proper strategy and the military can then implement it. General McChrystal is widely recognized as one of the military’s most capable commanders and is best suited to lead the mission, whatever its goals. But the President needs to decide what they are, and he needs to do so with urgency.
Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, remarked that without a coherent Afghan policy outlined in the next year the President will lose political support for the war and Congress will be tasked with making a decision.
Recent history in Iraq is a cautionary tale. It illustrates what happens when foreign policy decisions of great magnitude are rushed. But when dealing with both national security and American troops, time is of the essence. History will not look kindly upon excessive delay and overdue deliberation.
Clear policy goals and a concrete objective, as directed by the President, would allow for a more vigorous, pointed and relevant debate on strategy, resources, tactics, and commitment in Afghanistan. Absent strong Presidential guidance, US forces will find themselves pursuing ambiguous goals in a losing effort to save a mission that has been lost in translation.