Obama administration officials are now admitting what has been apparent for weeks: that they are giving serious consideration to radically downsizing the Afghanistan mission.  That this comes only months after unveiling a substantially different strategy to great fanfare is naturally raising questions.


Peter Baker and Elisabeth Bumiller break the story in this morning’s NYT.

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. Although Mr. Obama has said that a stable Afghanistan is central to the security of the United States, some advisers said he was also wary of becoming trapped in an overseas quagmire. Some Pentagon officials say they worry that he is having what they called “buyer’s remorse” after ordering an extra 21,000 troops there within weeks of taking office before even settling on a strategy.

Mr. Obama met in the Situation Room with his top advisers on Sept. 13 to begin chewing over the problem, said officials involved in the debate. Among those on hand were Mr. Biden; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; James L. Jones, the national security adviser; and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They reached no consensus, so three or four more such meetings are being scheduled. “There are a lot of competing views,” said one official who, like others in this article, requested anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.

Among the alternatives being presented to Mr. Obama is Mr. Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said, Mr. Biden proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics. The Americans would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan. Mr. Biden has often said that the United States spends something like $30 in Afghanistan for every $1 in Pakistan, even though in his view the main threat to American national security interests is in Pakistan. Mr. Obama rejected Mr. Biden’s approach in March, and it is not clear that it has more traction this time. But the fact that it is on the table again speaks to the breadth of the administration’s review and the evolving views inside the White House of what has worked in the region and what has not. In recent days, officials have expressed satisfaction with the results of their cooperation with Pakistan in hunting down Qaeda figures in the unforgiving border lands.

A shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to a focus on counterterrorism would turn the administration’s current theory on its head. The strategy Mr. Obama adopted in March concluded that to defeat Al Qaeda, the United States needed to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and making it a haven once again for Osama bin Laden’s network. Mr. Biden’s position questions that assumption.

What’s particularly striking is that a counterterrrorism focus certainly seemed to be Obama’s strategy when he first announced it in March, prompting me to ask “What’s so new about it?”

In announcing it, Obama proclaimed, “I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”   But that was President Bush’s goal, too, albeit not as well articulated.   And Bob Gates had already said this a week into the new administration.

That, of course, was before Gates fired General David McKiernan, replacing him with McChrystal, on the grounds that the latter was more adept at both counterinsurgency and playing the Washington game.  But even then, it was obvious the administration had no exit strategy which, from a Clausewitzian view on war, means we had no clear political objectives.

So, what has changed?

But the Afghan presidential election, widely marred by allegations of fraud, undermined the administration’s confidence that it had a reliable partner in President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden already had raised doubts about Mr. Karzai, which were only exacerbated by the fear that even if he emerges from a runoff election, he will have little credibility with his own people.  “A counterinsurgency strategy can only work if you have a credible and legitimate Afghan partner. That’s in doubt now,” said Bruce O. Riedel, who led the administration’s strategy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan earlier this year. “Part of the reason you are seeing a hesitancy to jump deeper into the pool is that they are looking to see if they can make lemonade out of the lemons we got from the Afghan election.”

Now, it shouldn’t have taken the election fiasco to make the administration aware that Karzai was something less than an Afghan Thomas Jefferson.  Anyone who’s read the papers over the last few years should have understood that.  But, certainly, widespread fraud in was disappointing to even those with clear eyes.

Harlan Ullman makes the interesting point that McKiernan’s leaked memo was an indirect challenge to Obama’s strategy.

McChrystal’s assessment implicitly challenged the Obama “strategy” announced last March in which the “core” reason for our presence in Afghanistan was the disruption, dismantlement and defeat of al-Qaida in the region. McChrystal concludes otherwise. The main threat he sees is in the form of three Taliban groups – under Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – and not Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers. Furthermore, the Obama strategy was based on a “three-legged” stool represented by governance, development and security.

It is clear now after the Afghan election that the governance leg was at best a peg. Similarly, the development leg thus far has been hollow. And no stool can rest for long on one leg no matter how strong. The McChrystal assessment subtly reaffirms these realities.

McChrystal’s solution is to double down on the troops and deal with the part of the problem we can address on our own.  Obama, apparently, thinks it may be smarter to cut our losses.   That’s hardly unreasonable, given that most reasonable estimates have us needing several more decades to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, there’s the matter of optics.

“The problem for President Obama is he has made the case in the past that we took our eye off the ball and we should have stayed in Afghanistan,” said former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. But now that he is in charge of the war, Mr. Cohen said, Mr. Obama is discovering “he doesn’t have much in the way of options” and time is of the essence. Mr. Cohen added, “The longer you wait, the harder it will be to reverse it.”

One of Obama’s strengths, not shared by his predecessor, is the ability to continually reassess the situation and correct course.  As Atlantic Council chairman Chuck Hagel recently noted, presidents are loathe to change course on a war, lest they appear weak.

The president and his national security team should listen to recordings of conversations that President Lyndon B. Johnson had with Sen. Richard Russell about Vietnam, especially those in which LBJ told Russell that we could not win in Vietnam but that he did not want to pull out and be the first American president to lose a war. Difficult decisions with historic consequences are coming soon for President Obama.

While I agree with CNAS scholar Andrew Exum that me must consider the costs of withdrawing from Afghanistan along with the advantages and that there are indeed American interests that merit risking American lives in that theater, I also agree with Dr. Henry Kissinger that we must consider our capacity and staying power as well as our desires when deciding what to do next.  Given that the American public will not put up with heavy casualties in Afghanistan for decades on end, especially given a corrupt host government and the lack of progress in building infrastructure or training Afghan security forces, it’s incumbent upon the president to steer the course of our policy accordingly.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner and Harlan Ullman