Friday, July 31, 2009

Another Afghanistan Review? Let's Make a Decision, People

We are in the midst of, by my count, the fifth review of our Afghanistan (or Afghanistan and Pakistan) strategy this year alone, this one directed by General McChrystal, and featuring some of the top counterinsurgency experts from inside the Beltway. Have any of them resulted in an actual new strategy? Not killing civilians is a good idea, but it's not a strategy. Counterinsurgency isn't even a strategy, it's an approach to accomplishing a strategy.
The problem with all these reviews is that they don't start in the right place: the top. The president, with the help of his top advisers needs to articulate a vision for Afghanistan, and then his advisers can decide how best to accomplish that goal. Is the goal killing or capturing al-Qaeda's top leaders? Preventing the Taliban from regaining control of the country? Establishing Afghanistan as a market-driven democracy?
Many of the advisers who participated in the most recent review are fairly pessimistic. Andrew Exum states that "winning in Afghanistan will be really, really difficult." No doubt that's true, but it become a lot easier if we define winning first. Stephen Biddle asks if the whole endeavor is worth it. Judah Grunstein (who was not involved in the review) does him one better, asking if we would enter Afghanistan now to accomplish those goals if we were not already there. Anthony Cordesman was one of the first to report that McChrystal needs more troops in Afghanistan. That may be the case, but what will he do with them, and what will they be trying to accomplish?
The President has a lot on his plate right now, but Afghanistan is a situation where leadership is desperately needed from the top. As the many reviews and many reviewers have shown and argued, we can go in several different directions. The President needs to pick one before any of the reviews will mean anything, otherwise we're all just treading water.

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