As President Obama and his national security team debate the way forward in Afghanistan, they must answer a series of difficult and complex questions. The administration must consider not only how the new U.S. policy will affect Afghanistan but also reflect upon the second and third order strategic consequences of the decision.


1.   What impact would a surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan have on the state of the American military after eight years of continuous war?

Every president says that the most difficult decision he must make is to send young American men and women into combat. For Obama, he must consider not only how his decision will affect the lives of individual soldiers,but also how the U.S. military in general would be affected by his decision. The U.S. military has now been engaged in Afghanistan for over eight years, and over five and a half years have passed since the U.S. opened a second, larger front in Iraq.

Continuous deployment and combat duty has put enormous strain on U.S. soldiers and their families, and may eventually impact recruitment and retention of young officers. The high tempo of operations also wears down equipment and forces substantial funds to be spent on operations, rather than reinvestment and development for future military contingencies.

On the other hand, if the president rejects the best advice of General McChrystal in favor of staying the course or scaling down the effort, he could deal a significant blow to the morale of a U.S. military renowned for its “‘can do” spirit.

In 2006, the U.S. military stepped up its efforts to prevent total defeat and chaos in Iraq. It may need to do the same in Afghanistan in 2010. As Obama chooses his next course of action, he must consider whether he can devote the resources needed to produce victory in Afghanistan without breaking the military.

2.  Following the debacle of the Afghan elections, does the U.S. have a partner in Kabul with enough legitimacy to help win the support of the Afghan people?

The Afghan elections have been a disaster for the U.S. and its allies. The Obama administration placed too much emphasis on the elections as a means of bringing stability to Afghanistan. Instead, the fraudulent elections have further destabilized the country. As a result of the botched elections, the U.S. has lost almost all trust in Hamid Karzai and large swaths of the Afghan people will see the government as illegitimate.

The U.S. cannot make Hamid Karzai disappear. Faced with this reality, it must improve its relationship with Karzai and pressure him to bring political opponents into the tent to enhance the competence of his government and win back support of disaffected Afghans. The Afghan people may feel little ownership of the government after the elections, but if the Afghan government can take steps toward reducing corruption and enhancing its effectiveness as the U.S. and its allies provide greater human security, a positive outcome in Afghanistan is still possible. Effective governance and security will likely prove more important than legitimacy in Afghanistan’s short to medium term.

If the U.S. determines it does not have a partner in Kabul, a counter-insurgency campaign is doomed to failure, no matter how many troops the U.S. sends. In that case, a more limited, counterterrorism approach would be the correct course of action.

3.    Can the president maintain the unity of the Democratic Party if he chooses a counterinsurgency strategy focused on a troop buildup?

Media reports indicate that the Obama administration is divided on the future strategy for Afghanistan. Secretary Clinton is supposedly the hawk, Vice President Biden favors a limited counter-terrorism approach with an emphasis on supporting Pakistan, and Secretary Gates appears undecided for the moment.

The Democratic Congress is even less unified. The left wing of the party, such as Nancy Pelosi and Carl Levin, does not support adding more troops to Afghanistan and favors more limited ambitions. On the other hand, Harry Reid has indicated that Democrats will fall in line behind the president’s decision and Diane Feinstein has given support to McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy.

While Republicans generally back McChrystal’s call for more troops, their visceral dislike for the president means they cannot be trusted as partners likely to see the campaign through potentially darker days. If the war goes south, the Republicans will try to use it against Obama. The Democratic Party is already sufficiently divided on the issues of health care and climate change policy to give the president fits. Although politicians claim to not play politics in war, in this case Obama cannot afford to risk further dividing his party. If Rahm Emannuel cannot ensure that Democrats will solidly back a surge in troops, the president will need to think about an exit strategy for Afghanistan – or else risk that Afghanistan will force him to exit the White House after one term.

4.    How will the Obama administration sell its eventual decision to the American public?

The Afghan war is supposed to be the “good war.” Obama called it a “war of necessity” even as recently as August. However, the American people are increasingly turning on the campaign as casualties mount, the insurgents gain momentum, and the Afghan elections have destroyed any illusions of political progress in the country.

The administration’s stated war goal is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The administration is essentially asking the American people to support a negative – preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a base for al Qaeda. This objective is difficult to sell to a war-weary public, particularly as it becomes clear that al Qaeda is seeking to build up a presence in Yemen and Somalia. The American public could be forgiven for asking if the president is not committing the military to an endless game of “whack-a-mole.”  Others might argue with considerable credibility that strengthened homeland security measures have had much more to do with preventing further terrorist attacks on the U.S. than wars in distant lands.

On the other hand, if Obama opts for a more limited, counter-terrorist strategy or continues along the present course, he will have to convince the American people that he is not ‘cutting and running’ in the face of Taliban gains. For Democrats seeking to shake off a thirty-year reputation for weakness on national security issues, this is a risky option.

5.    What is the nature of the Afghan insurgency and what type of political accommodation – if any – can be negotiated with the insurgents?

Perhaps no question will be more hotly debated in the White House than whether or not the Taliban can be brought into the political process. Is the Taliban a local insurgency limited to southern Afghanistan? Does it have broader regional objectives that could threaten the stability of Pakistan as well? Can the Taliban be convinced to renounce its links to al Qaeda? Can the Taliban actually be defeated or do its Pashtun origins make it a fact of life in Afghanistan with which the U.S. and Kabul must reach some sort of accommodation – ideally from a stronger negotiating position than at present? Can more ‘moderate’ Taliban be co-opted in a future Afghan government?

Answers to these questions will require the administration to seek the input of regional experts with a deep and nuanced knowledge and understanding of Afghan culture and society. The administration’s key decision makers will have to use this technical information to inform the creation of a proper and successful strategy. Doing so will require sang froid, a good deal of pragmatism, and a high tolerance for moral ambiguity.

6.    How will the administration’s decision affect NATO?

The U.S. is not engaged in this fight alone. America’s 41 allies and partners in Afghanistan are watching and waiting for Obama to make his decision on the way forward for Afghanistan. At the moment, it is unclear if the Obama administration is truly consulting with its allies as it debates the process, or if it will consult with allies once a decision has more or less been taken.

The NATO Alliance is in a fight for its relevance in Afghanistan, and right now, it is losing that fight. A surge in U.S. troops could potentially provide badly needed momentum to a failing mission, but it is also fraught with peril for NATO. If the U.S. bolsters its commitment, Washington will look closely for signs of solidarity and enhanced burden sharing on the part of its European allies, even if this support is limited to urgently needed civilian contributions to enhance reconstruction and governance reform in Afghanistan. If Europe fails to step up, American officials may question the utility of the Alliance. On the other hand, if the U.S. decides to pursue a counterterrorism mission and begin drawing down forces in Afghanistan, the Allies will use this as an excuse to hasten their withdrawal from the mission.

7.    How important is the war in Afghanistan in the face of other U.S. strategic priorities?

Instability in Afghanistan is just one of many strategic challenges the United States faces today. Other major challenges include instability and extremism across the Durand line in Pakistan; curbing Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons; ensuring peace and stability in Iraq as the U.S. seeks to draw down forces; stemming proliferation in North Korea; hedging against rapidly rising Chinese influence in Asia; and ensuring U.S. access to the global commons.

How would any new U.S. policy for Afghanistan affect America’s ability to manage these other major strategic priorities or deal with a strategic surprise? Critics accuse the Bush administration of abandoning Afghanistan for Iraq in 2003. Could the U.S. repeat the mistake by ignoring Iraq in favor of Afghanistan in 2009-2010? How will any U.S. action strengthen or weaken America’s position in the region vis a vis Iran?

Another of the great strategic challenges facing the U.S. is to reduce popular support for Islamic extremism around the world. Obama has tried to weaken the extremist voice through a policy of outreach, but he must avoid giving the appearance of weakness. The threat from al Qaeda comes not only from the isolated mountains of Waziristan, but also from the network of networked, largely autonomous jihadists in cities across the world who draw inspiration from the al Qaeda brand and concept. If the president’s Afghan policy is perceived to be a sign of weakness by the Taliban and Islamic extremists worldwide, he could undermine the effectiveness of his outreach strategy. On the other hand, while sending more troops to the region could pull Afghanistan out of its downward spiral, it would also raise the stakes of failure and perhaps cause many Muslims to doubt Obama’s intentions to repair relations with the Islamic world.

With a growing list of domestic priorities and mounting challenges to U.S. global leadership, Obama will have to consider just how important Afghanistan is in relation to broader U.S. strategic objectives.

8.    If the U.S. were to send more troops to Afghanistan, what would their purpose and mission be?

Asking whether or not the U.S. should send more troops to Afghanistan is the wrong question. If the U.S. president decides more troops are needed to pursue a full-fledged counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the key issue is to determine their appropriate mission. If the U.S. chooses to adopt a counter-insurgency strategy, more troops would be sent to clear territory from the enemy and hold it so development projects can take place. Will the troops be concentrated in high-risk parts of Afghanistan, such as Helmand province? Or will they be sent to major cities to provide maximum population protection?

Others argue that U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan to provide enhanced training and mentoring to the Afghan army and police forces. In light of the recent discrediting of the Afghan government due to the fraudulent elections, is this strategy still viable and credible?

9.    Will a war-weary Afghan population see a larger U.S. military footprint as a provocation rather than a last-ditch effort to save the country?

Unlike in Iraq, Afghans largely welcomed the intervention of U.S. and allied forces in 2001. The Taliban are largely unpopular among local Afghans, and most Afghans are inclined to back the efforts of the U.S. and its allies to bring stability and security to the country. However, Afghans are out of patience after eight years of unfulfilled promises, corrupt governance, and mounting civilian casualties.

The Soviet Union learned the hard way the risks of trying to pacify Afghanistan with large number of foreign troops. Yet the United States also failed to succeed in achieving its vision for Afghanistan through a limited, counter-terrorism approach from 2001 until roughly 2006. Secretary Gates is reportedly concerned that a U.S. ‘surge’ in troop levels would be met with hostility by an Afghan populace notoriously resistant to foreign occupation. With the Afghan government now discredited and the U.S. now eight years into the war, the risk remains that the Afghan people will meet an U.S. escalation with hostility.

10.    How will U.S. policy towards Afghanistan affect Pakistan?

Any decision Obama takes toward Afghanistan will affect Pakistan, where the strategic stakes are far greater for the United States. Indeed, many have pointed out that Afghanistan is only important as it relates to Pakistan, where the senior leadership of al Qaeda is thought to be hiding. Last week’s uptick in militant violence in Pakistan only reinforces American fears of instability in the nuclear-armed nation.

A surge in U.S. forces would require a major increase in supplies and logistical support to U.S. and NATO troops in the landlocked nation. Although Russia has permitted a northern logistics route, any ‘surge’ in troops would require more material and supplies to pass through Pakistan, where convoys are attacked regularly. This would increase the vulnerability of U.S. supply lines and could further agitate anti-Western sentiment in Pakistan.

The lingering mistrust between the U.S. and Pakistan adds an important element of risk for Obama’s future Afghan policy. Pakistan does not believe America is committed to seeing through success in Afghanistan, while the U.S. believes elements of the Pakistani government supports the Afghan Taliban. The U.S. will have to consider how its new Afghan policy will be seen in Pakistan and consider how any decision will affect its stability. In either case, the U.S. would be wise to consult with Islamabad and work to secure Pakistan’s buy-in and support before deciding on any future U.S. policy.

Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.

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