Within the next several days, President Obama will likely announce his decision regarding American strategy in Afghanistan. He has kept his counsel close to the vest on this, and I have no idea good enough to bet on what he will decide. One thing I do know for certain: regardless of what his decision is, it will be condemned loudly by part of the public. On Afghanistan (as well, apparently, as almost anything else he does), Obama is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t, quite apart from what “does” and doesn’t” may mean and the merits of whatever decision he makes.


The political debate could hardly be less helpful. Most of it has surrounded the request that General Stanley McChrystal has made for additional forces to fight and “win” in Afghanistan. One side says Obama should do what McChrystal wants, because he has superior understanding of the military situation. The other side says that sending more troops into that country is essentially pouring bad rersources (including American lives) after good. Both positions suggest their basis for pillorying the President if their position is rejected: fail to send more men and he is an unpatriotic fool endangering people’s lives; sending the men needlessly puts more personnel at risk for no good reason. Figure out the popular position among those options.

Part of the problem is that the debate starts from the wrong question. As Obama keeps trying to point out, the question of troop levels depends on what we seek to accomplish: what is our political goal? That goal can be either to assist in the establishment of a stable, anti-Al Qaeda Afghanistan or, more modestly, simply to try to create conditions that inhibit Al Qaeda use of Afghanistan territory, quite apart from who rules the country how. Once that determination is made (and as best I can tell, it has not been), then the question of strategy arises: what do we need to do to accomplish whatever goal we have chosen? At this point, the troop numbers become relevant, but not before.

Questions of strategy necessarily take us beyond the realm of the known to the unknown and,with any precise ability to gauge, the unpredictable. Is, for instance, the creation of a stable Afghan state possible under any conditions (history suggest caution) or, more particularly, under Hamid Karzai? Karzai says he will root out corruption (a major source of instability) and even convene a loya jirga to work out the details. Is he sincere? Will this work? Who knows? I don’t know, and if you say you do, you are lying (or at least stretching the evidence). If the goal is unattainable (or is so judged) , does it make sense to pursue it?

The same is true of the more modest goal of simply suppressing Al Qaeda. If that is the goal, it probably entails abandoning Karzai,and although other things about the equation are conjectural, it is almost certainly that his government cannot survive with the Americans to prop it up (his brave words of moving toward independence notwithstanding). It may be that the United States could strike a deal with a non-Karzai, probably Taliban-participating government to control, even destroy, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (what effect this would have on neighboring Pakistan is a separate matter). Is such an agreement possible? I don’t know. Might the Taliban lie and say they will cooperate on controlling Al Qaeda and then welsh on the deal? Could be.

Once one has decided what goal to pursue, then, and only then, do questions of troop levels and uses become relevant. If our job is to keep Karzai in power, then 40,000 more troops (possibly even many more than  that) may be needed and appropriate. McChrystal’s idea, apparently, is to use extra forces to shore up security in the cities while the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) ramp up. Will that work? Maybe. Maybe not. But for sure, it is much more complicated than simply suggesting that war should be turned over to the generals. (Or,or that matter, for tritely saying war is too important to be left to the generals.)

President Obama faces a very tough decision, and what he should decide is nowhere nearly as clear as those screaming from one side or the other suggest. One thing, however, is clear about the decision: there will be vocal, shrill, even hysterical reaction–especially opposition–regardless of what it is. The bad news is that, indeed, the president will be damned regardless of what he does. The good news is that knowing that means he can make the decision regardless of its popularity and base his decision on what he considers the strategic rather than political merits.

That may be the best possible atmosphere in which to reach a momentous decision. So let the bitching and moaning begin!

Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published in the What After Iraq? blog as “Obama and Afghanistan: Damned If He Does….”