Wednesday 23 September 2009

Leaving it a bit late

It is the New York Times that is now telling us that Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan. The process includes considering a plan advocated by vice president Biden to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out al Qaeda there and in Pakistan.

This amounts to a "wholesale reconsideration" of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago, helpfully summarised by Newsweek. That strategy involved defeating the insurgents, preventing Al Qaeda from re-establishing a sanctuary and working to set up a democratic and effective government.

Crucially, it also involved training Afghan forces to take over from US troops and coaxing the international community to give more help. There was also an added element, focusing on Pakistan - "assisting efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunities for the people of Pakistan."

In pursuit of the Afghan end of what became known as the AFPAK strategy, Obama agreed to despatch an additional 17,000 troops to the theatre and then another 4,000 to help train Afghan security forces. And it was that strategy which Gen McChrystal took as his brief, working to produce his "assessment" of how it should be implemented.

What has actually confused the issue is that McChrystal writes extensively about needing a new strategy. In fact, the strategy had already been determined. What he has offered is a "significant change in ... the way we think and operate."

As we know, the essence of this "significant change" is defined as "take, hold and build", the first step having been achieved in part with the 17,000 extra troops. But now the coalition forces have taken more territory, McChrystal finds – as he always would – that he needs more troops to hold it. The figure of 30-40,000 has been mentioned.

Now – or so it would seem – Obama is having to confront the inevitable consequence of a strategy defined last March, which effectively rubber-stamped what Bush had put in place, and is now having second thoughts. Thus do we learn that Obama met with his top advisers on 13 September to "begin chewing over the problem", only to find no consensus – in fact, quite the reverse. "There are a lot of competing views," said one official.

Major factors which have prompted the second thoughts, though, are deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and McChrystal's own report. However, there is view that 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 additional troops.

This notwithstanding, the debate seems to have polarised into two separate camps, on the one hand a counterinsurgency strategy – on which basis McChrystal has been working - and, on the other, a focus on counterterrorism. The latter is not dissimilar to that advocated by George F. Will known as "offshore balancing" which, as the New York Times observes, "would turn the administration's current theory on its head'.

Given that in May, Gen David D McKiernan was replaced by Gen McChrystal, who was empowered to carry out the "new" strategy, McChrystal can perhaps feel aggrieved by now having his assessment second-guessed at this late stage, after so much effort and energy has gone into responding to the original brief and the strategy has been partially implemented.

The "game changer" though appears to have been the Afghan presidential election, which has undermined the administration's confidence that it had a reliable partner in Karzai. As Bruce O. Riedel – the man who led the AFPAK strategy review – observes, "A counterinsurgency strategy can only work if you have a credible and legitimate Afghan partner. That's in doubt now."

Obama, says the NYT, now has to reconcile past statements and policy with his current situation. And, says former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, "The longer you wait, the harder it will be to reverse it." In fact, Obama has left it a bit late now to question the very basis on which McChrystal was working, when strategy issues should have been settled from the outset – as indeed they appeared to have been.