Like a lot of people, I’m still scratching my head wondering what President Obama wants to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has been proven that counterinsurgency won’t work, at least not without approximately double the resources the USA can possibly commit. What the president gave us on Tuesday in his West Point speech was simply counter-intuitive. In brief, he wants to deploy another 33,000 American troops and 7,000 additional NATO troops, while at the same time planning a withdrawal to begin in 18 months.
In a matter of weeks, a Marine Regimental Combat Team will be heading to Afghanistan’s Helmand province, to reinforce the thousands of marines already patrolling the sparsely-populated poppy-growing province. Follow-on units will be sent at a rapid pace.
Here are some possible interpretations. Commenters are invited to add more.
1. It’s a cynical, Iraq-style “surge.” General McChrystal enlisted allies among the same right-wing think tank people (e.g. Fred Kagan) who were behind President Bush’s Iraq gambit. He demanded 40,000 troops, which is the maximum effort possible given the continuing deployment of 20 combat brigades in Iraq. Like the so-called “surge” in Iraq, this is more than we can afford to send, and not enough to make a strategic difference. Casualties will peak, as they did in Iraq. Like the so-called Iraq “surge,” it could work in domestic political terms by staving off defeat and fooling the media. A real exit strategy can be postponed until after 2012. As in Vietnam, the goal is to create a “decent interval” so that the other side can’t immediately declare a triumph when we go.
2. It’s a renewed push for nation-building. After many broken promises and failed efforts, there is a case to be made for Afghanistan 3.0 — a re-boot that finally brings help to the Afghan people. This means circumventing the corrupt Karzai regime and following through on direct provincial-level efforts targeted to local economic development. It also means an open-ended aid commitment, which Secretary of State Clinton is promising. Another objective of the new U.S. strategy is to “buy space and time” to strengthen the Afghan army and police. But the administration is only sending a single brigade to focus on that mission.
3. It’s a backstop for the main effort in Pakistan. What if the Pakistan-U.S. attack on Taliban safe havens across the border in South Waziristan is actually intended as the decisive engagement? That’s the strategic center of gravity. Recent reports indicate far greater U.S. combat participation in Pakistan than has been openly acknowledged.
I’ve been watching my “Battlestar Galactica” DVDs. It could be that President Obama is “rolling the hard six” (as Admiral Adama would say). Making an all-out, win-or-lose decisive attack to get the Taliban leadership where they live, and force them to the peace table.
UPDATE: Danger Room has a list of hard questions that Congress ought to ask General McChrystal when he tesitifies this week.
UPDATE: For those of us confused about the goals of the Afghan escalation, the Pentagon offers this simple, easy-to-understand chart.
UPDATE: Today on Capitol Hill, General McChrystal identified one fairly large problem: the Taliban pays its fighters more than the Afghan Army pays theirs.