The Biden Plan For Afghanistan
This would be a serious strategy shift, and the right one, IMO:
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 [...]
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 [...]
A shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to a focus on counterterrorism would turn the administration’s current theory on its head....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.
Counter-terrorism was the initial goal and is still cited as the main reason for being in Afghanistan, so I don't know if I'd call it a shift in strategy more than a return to the actual strategy, the only one with national security implications.
This is probably another trial balloon, but it's clear that there is no unanimity of opinion in the White House on Afghanistan. Some people look at a country with no functioning government and a fraudulent, illegitimate leader, and they wonder how you can run a counter-insurgency campaign around that. And they would be right. Heck, General McChrystal said they're right, basically (via K-Drum):
McChrystal's point is that it's not simply "resources," not just U.S. and NATO troops, that will settle the war. It's also whether the Afghan government earns the trust of its people — whether the Afghan president and his entourage of ministers, governors, and warlords are willing — or are willing to be lured — to clean up their act, end their corrupt practices, and truly serve their people.
When Obama says he needs to review the strategy before he decides on troop levels, he almost certainly means that he needs to assess whether a counterinsurgency strategy makes sense if the Afghan government — the entity that our troops would be propping up and aligning themselves with — is viewed by a wide swath of its own people as illegitimate.
Given this fact, the parallels to Vietnam and the Diem government become clear. They never had a popular legitimacy there, either, making the fight a losing battle.
America does not have a good track record of de-escalating a war in the face of the evidence. It would be a very bold maneuver for a President not inclined toward bold maneuvers, at least so far. But getting trapped in a war because of the tauntings of hawks, when there's so much else to get right, would be a disappointment. I'm pleased that he hasn't rushed to the conclusion of the generals here, and is seriously thinking about the reality of the situation instead of some fantasy world where America builds an oasis of democracy in a country that has never known it.
...by the way, this sounds like a really good cover story, showing Bob Woodward and the Washington Post's commitment to the safety of the troops, without addressing the elephant in the room, that whoever leaked the document wanted to force the President's hand and Woodward let them. That would be the opposite of the "Pentagon Papers," to which Woodward likened it. It's a propaganda ploy designed to embarrass the commander-in-chief into escalation. And Woodward played along. What a hero.