Slate’s Fred Kaplan reports that, after weeks of strategic reviews, the Obama administration will have to decide by next week’s NATO summit between “two radically different Afghanistan policies.”

According to close observers, the key debate in the White House is whether the United States and NATO should wage a counterinsurgency campaign—securing the Afghan population, helping to provide basic services, and thus strengthening support for the government—or whether we should devote most of our resources to going afteral Qaeda terrorists directly. Obviously, any plan will wind up doing at least a bit of both; the debate is over priorities and emphasis.

The counterinsurgency (or COIN) advocates argue that only through their approach can al Qaeda and the Taliban be defeated. Hunting and killing terrorists has its place, but in the long run it only gives the enemy the initiative, lets them melt away into the landscape, and does little to stop new recruits from taking their place. The best way to keepal Qaeda at bay is to dry up its support by earning the trust of the civilian population, building roads, creating jobs, and striking power-sharing deals with tribal elders.

Some in the CT camp realize that the COIN-dinistas (as critics call them) have a point. Their real gripe with counterinsurgency is that it costs too much and promises too little. Even most COIN strategists acknowledge that a successful campaign, especially in Afghanistan, would require lots of troops (way more than President Obama has committed so far), lots of time (a decade or so), and lots of money (wiping out most or all of the savings achieved by the withdrawal from Iraq)—and even then the insurgents might still win.


Obama has to choose one approach or the other this week, if he hasn’t done so already. Afghanistan will fill the agenda at next week’s NATO conference. He has said that he’ll ask the allies to step up their involvement. But he can’t expect them to accede unless he requests specific measures and explains how they fit into a clear strategic context, and he can’t do that unless he decides what the strategy is.

Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, articulated just a week after he took office, would seem to suggest that he’s leaning toward a counterterrorism emphasis.   If, in fact, defense secretary Bob Gates’ assertion that “our primary goal is to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to attack the United States and our allies,” then continuing to focus on killing senior leaders of al Qaeda and the most virulent Taliban groups is the direct path. 

COIN offers a more permanent solution, of course, but as Kaplan notes, it comes at a very steep price with no guarantee of success.  Given that the American military and economy are under tremendous strain and our NATO allies have long since tired of the mission, it’s far from clear that we can undertake a full-scale COIN mission in Afghanistan for ten, fifteen, twenty years or more.

CT, by contrast, may end up as a particularly deadly game of whac-a-mole.  We may not, however, have a better option.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.