It’s hard to know what to make of this Wall Street Journal article: “Gates Doubts U.S.’s Afghan Strategy.” It reveals that “a senior defense official said that Defense Secretary Robert Gates now worries that counterinsurgency might no longer be a viable approach for countering the Taliban violence roiling once-stable parts of north and west Afghanistan.” But at the same time, the very last paragraph quotes Gates’s spokesman as saying that Gates is opposed to a narrow “counterterror” strategy of the kind pushed by Vice President Biden, because he “does not think that is a path to success in Afghanistan.”
I can only hope that this does not mean that Gates is coming to favor some kind of halfhearted compromise—maintaining a counterinsurgency strategy but not sending enough troops to fully implement it. Such options are outlined in this New York Times article and in this Washington Post article, which reports that many Hill Democrats are coalescing around what might be called the Levin Plan, after Senator Carl Levin, who favors doing more to train Afghan forces but not sending more American troops.
This approach ignores what we learned in Iraq—that training alone does not produce an effective military. What really increases effectiveness is joint operations between American and indigenous forces so that the locals can see how it’s done. That, however, requires a substantial American troop presence—one that we had in Iraq but don’t yet have in Afghanistan. Those American troops are also needed to deal with the hardest fights because, initially, Afghan troops, just like their Iraqi predecessors, won’t have the capability to defeat the most formidable insurgents. Throwing them into the fight by themselves before they’re ready, which is what the Levin Plan would do, is a recipe for failure. I agree entirely with a Bush administration NSC veteran who is quoted therein as saying, “The middle options are either high risk or they’re status quo or they’re unworkable.”
The Texas politico Jim Hightower famously said, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” In the case of Afghanistan, that might be amended to read “dead Americans” because a middle-of-the-road option is going to get more American servicemen killed without producing the same chance of success as a full-fledged counterinsurgency. If we are going to risk the lives of our troops and our allies’ troops, it had better be in the pursuit of victory—not for some kind of lame holding action that results from ambivalence and indecision in Washington.