The Cost of Dithering
The delay in White House decision-making is protracting and complicating the campaign in Afghanistan.
White House preoccupation with troop levels has also hindered the development and implementation of a coherent political strategy to improve Afghan governance to match McChrystal's military strategy. The administration's response to the predictably flawed elections has been reactive and defensive. Even now that the election crisis has ended, the White House appears more intent on micromanaging the deployment of forces down to the last soldier than on developing a coherent approach to improving Afghan governance. The White House is now considering three, four, or five different force-level options, depending on the (official or anonymous) source. It has yet to show that it has developed any serious options for political strategy.
In the meantime, the enemy has not been idle. Taliban forces throughout the south have been preparing themselves to meet an expected American counter-offensive. They have refined their propaganda messaging both within Afghanistan and toward the U.S. They have also taken advantage of the flawed presidential elections to expound their own political vision for the country and start actively competing with the government for legitimacy.
America has vital interests in Afghanistan. The White House debate has only pointed up the continued close ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Pakistan's operations against its own internal foes have shown yet again how important it is for the U.S. to succeed on the Afghan side of the Durand Line if we are to help Pakistan defeat enemies that threaten Islamabad and the West.
The mission in Afghanistan remains doable. U.S. and allied forces have made some progress in areas of Helmand and are engaging the enemy in parts of Kandahar and elsewhere that we had previously ignored. Reinforcing those successes and giving General McChrystal the forces he needs to protect other key population centers and attack other important enemy sanctuaries offers a good prospect of neutralizing the insurgency. It will buy time for the administration to implement a political strategy in Afghanistan.
But the administration must also buy more time for its commander. The White House cannot sit on the general's proposals and requests for months and still expect him to meet a deadline set when he took command. It is still possible, if the White House sends General McChrystal the forces he needs, to see a significant improvement in Afghanistan in a year--but the year begins when the additional resources start flowing. That, in turn, means that Afghanistan may not seem to be doing that well next summer when both the Taliban fighting season and the congressional campaign season are at their heights. The president has a responsibility to keep Washington politics from derailing the effort in Afghanistan at a critical moment next year.
One of the keys to retaining domestic political support for the Iraq surge was the deliberate management of expectations by General Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker, and the administration generally. President Obama now faces a challenge at least as great. He must explain to the American people the need to fight the war, the need to send more forces, and the reasons to believe that success is possible. He must also explain realistically how long and serious the effort will be. And he must do it very soon.
Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI. The project's recent report on likely enemy reactions to U.S. strategy options in Afghanistan is available at www.understandingwar.org and www.criticalthreats.org. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. .