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A Prescription for Tragedy in Afghanistan

If media leaks are to be believed, President Obama will attempt to chart a middle way in Afghanistan, sending more soldiers but not as many as General Stanley McChrystal would like. The New York Times describes the emerging strategy as “McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country,” a blend of the diametrically opposed approaches advocated by the general (who favors a counterinsurgency strategy) and the vice president (who wants to do counterterrorism operations only). The Times writes that "the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Maza-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, officials said." In the rest of Afghanistan, presumably, operations would be limited to a few air raids and Special Operations raids. Other media reports suggest that the administration is looking to send 10,000 to 20,000 troops — not the 40,000 that McChrystal wants.

To Washington politicians, this no doubt sounds like a sensible compromise. To anyone steeped in military strategy it sounds as if it could be a prescription for tragedy. The administration seems intent on doing just enough to keep the war effort going without doing enough to win it. That is also what the U.S. did in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, and for that matter in Afghanistan from 2001 to today. The ambivalence of our politicians places US troops in harm’s way without giving them a chance to prevail.

It is hard, of course, to make any definitive statement until the administration makes public its strategy. It is always possible that the final decision will not resemble the leaks we read today. But if the Times report is accurate, senior White House officials are bent on imposing a curious strategy on our on-the-ground commander. Most of Afghanistan’s big cities are not seriously threatened by insurgents. Notwithstanding a few high-profile attacks, Kabul is pretty safe, as I discovered for myself during a recent visit. So too with Herat, Jalalabad, Maza-i-Sharif, and the rest. Even Kandahar doesn’t have much violence, although the Taliban undoubtedly exert some control over what goes on inside the city limits. The problem lies in the countryside, where the Taliban have been pursuing the same strategy that the mujahideen used against the Soviets in the 1980s — consolidate control in rural areas and then launch attacks on the cities where foreign troops are garrisoned.

The Taliban right now are still working to secure the countryside and it would be a grave mistake if we allowed them to pursue that strategy hindered only by a few air strikes that inevitably would be ineffective unless we had troops on the ground to generate accurate targeting intelligence. That doesn’t mean that we should send forces into remote outposts where no one lives. McChrystal is, in fact, pulling back such small bases, and rightly so. But his strategy envisions major operations to secure the Helmand River Valley, a rural area but one with plenty of substantial towns and villages. This is the economic heart of southern Afghanistan and the country’s major poppy-growing region. His strategy also envisions taking control of the rural areas that surround major cities such as Kandahar and Kabul. In the case of the capital, that means pacifying provinces to the south such as Logar and Wardak. The approaches to those cities have been in the grip of the Taliban, and breaking their vice grip will require more troops.

Similarly, Baghdad did not start to become secure in 2007 until the U.S. deployed substantial surge troops to the "gates" of the city — the belt of rural territory surrounding the capital including the "triangle of death" to the south. If the Obama strategy does not envision a similar offensive in Afghanistan, it will be making a terrible mistake. But if such an offensive is planned it will take a lot of troops — 10,000 to 20,000 probably won’t cut it, especially if most of those are providing combat "enablers" (medevac, air support, route clearance, intelligence, and the like).

But don’t just take my word for it. Here is what a senior Afghan general in Kabul told me not long ago: "It’s not enough to hit a terrorist sanctuary or two with Predators and Hellfires and leave the Taliban to breed. That will only prolong the fighting. In my opinion a counterterrorist strategy is not the answer. We need extra forces to cover all the threatened areas, to keep highways open, and to accelerate the growth of the army and police." I can only hope that the White House will heed his words.

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