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Throwing the Objective Out with the Bathwater

John Noonan at the Weekly Standard and Max Boot fear that the compromise option Obama is considering for Afghanistan portends a bad decision. Regrettably, mainstream media reporting is unlikely to help Americans understand why. New York Times reporters faithfully reproduce the terms used by administration officials: adopting some elements from McChrystal’s plan and some from the Biden strategy of terrorist-hunting, with a lower number of additional troops presumably justified by the decision not to adopt the entire McChrystal plan. Noonan refers to it as “splitting the baby.”

These essentially methodological terms obscure the real issue, however, which is that truncating McChrystal’s plan inherently changes the objective. If Obama indeed chooses the compromise option outlined in the Times, he will not be telling McChrystal to approach the same objective in a different way. He will be telling McChrystal not to approach it at all.

Max has ably developed the essentials of the McChrystal proposal to secure areas of the Afghan countryside against the Taliban by immunizing the population against insurgent tactics through a multipronged approach, and by focusing on key terrain: transportation routes, the Helmand valley agricultural area, and selected positions in western and eastern Afghanistan that the Taliban cannot be allowed to hold. McChrystal’s plan also, of course, envisions protecting key cities and continuing to train Afghan forces. But it’s the emphasis on securing the countryside—which otherwise will be ruled and used by the Taliban—that demands the bulk of the 40,000 troops.

With only 10,000-20,000 additional troops, the countryside cannot be secured. Obama’s advisers have propounded this issue in honest terms: The Biden group avowedly sees no value in securing the Afghan countryside against the Taliban. There are vague references instead to concluding deals with “moderate” Taliban—a concept that in practice would amount to favoring some Taliban against their tribal enemies.

Given NATO’s numbers and superior armament, a handful of cities could probably be protected for some time under these conditions, although commerce and development would suffer. But a trained Afghan force, once security were turned over to it, would face the Taliban’s holding the majority of Afghan territory after just one or two years of the Obama administration’s compromise option. This option is not a strategy for leaving Afghanistan secure. It would inevitably be seen in the region as a strategy for American convenience and would complete the rollback from Bush’s transformative approach to one of retaining fortified bases from which to conduct homicidal raids against terrorists — while Central Asia is left to descend into chaos. Local rebellion against such a policy seems all but guaranteed.

The compromise option carries a fundamentally different objective from the one McChrystal’s plan seeks to achieve. The objective is the essential issue, not the methodology. This is a baby that cannot be split; it can only be thrown out with the bath water.