In the Arena

Today in Afghanistan

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Les Gelb has an interesting op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, highlighting the President’s recent wobblies on Afghanistan and suggesting a middle path forward. Gelb has been a leading Afghanistan skeptic, so it’s news that he’s now in favor of adding two more brigades (about 10,000 troops) to the fight, as well as another 5-10,000 trainers.

This is less than the U.S. military wants–the rumor is 4 to 6 additional brigades (about 25,000 troops)–but it is still a substantial commitment, which Gelb says should last another three years–to transition to Afghan control of the war and an enhanced U.S. counter-terrorism capability, mostly special operations and intelligence forces, to continue the fight against Al Qaeda.

It is notable that Gelb doesn’t mention counterinsurgency (COIN), which is what the military is intending to do with the additional forces–as I reported last week, General McChrystal favors a renewed effort to secure the Afghan population in crucial areas like Kandahar city. The Washington Post reports today that McChrystal is beginning to withdraw U.S. troops from isolated rural areas to bolster the effort in more heavily populated districts.

But the most troubling aspect of the Administration’s policy is, as Gelb points out, the President’s own conflicting statements–hawkish a mere three weeks ago at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, more circumspect during his Sunday morning TV blitz. The circumspection makes sense; the hawkishness doesn’t.

There is a need for a new strategy–or maybe just…a strategy. The rigged Afghan elections have demolished the Karzai government’s credibility–and a real decision about future troop levels can’t be made until the nature of Karzai’s second term government becomes clear: for example, will he get rid of corrupt, drug-tainted allies like his brother Ahmed Wali in Kandahar and Sher Ali Akhundzada, who was caught with 9 tons of opium at his compound in Helmand?

Various sources have told me that the Administration now lines up this way on the troops question: Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and Jim Jones are in favor of granting the military’s request. Joe Biden is more skeptical, in favor of looking at other options–like fewer troops or the slow transition to counter-terrorism strategy that Gelb suggests. The President is undecided.