Finding a Middle Way for Afghanistan

By David Ignatius

It's the nature of Afghanistan that nothing there ever works out quite the way outsiders expect, and that certainly was the case with last month's presidential election. Rather than producing a mandate for good governance, as U.S. officials once hoped, the balloting has instead brought allegations of fraud, political squabbling and delay, and a new set of headaches in the war against the Taliban.

The Obama administration has talked of Afghanistan as the "good" war (as opposed to the "bad" one in Iraq), where more U.S. troops and a smarter strategy would produce results. But getting Afghanistan right won't be as easy as it once seemed.

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As key policymakers returned to Washington this week, they were weighing the Afghanistan conundrum. Should President Obama back a broad counterinsurgency strategy that would try to build long-term stability by protecting the Afghan population and promoting political reconciliation? Or should he opt for a narrower and less costly counterterrorism approach that would use high-tech firepower to prevent al-Qaeda from rebuilding havens?

Obama hasn't decided which approach he favors, nor have his top advisers. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander in Kabul, has just delivered his recommendation for the broader strategy -- which would almost certainly mean more troops next year. Meanwhile, Vice President Biden and many members of Congress are urging a narrower focus. Some critics have warned that this could be "Obama's Vietnam."

How should Obama think about this crucial foreign policy decision? One obvious answer is that before he commits to the broad goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, he should be confident that the United States has a better chance of succeeding than did two earlier aspirants, Britain and the Soviet Union.

Reading Afghan history is sobering, to put it mildly. Peter Hopkirk's narrative "The Great Game" documents the inability of the British Empire, with all its troops, wealth and imperial discipline, to subdue Afghanistan's fiercely independent tribes. The book highlights the hubris of British hawks, who argued that potential threats to the British raj must be confronted with an aggressive "forward strategy" in the Hindu Kush.

There was a more cautious faction back then, too. They argued for a "backward" approach to defending India: Let invaders exhaust themselves on the way; if they made it past Afghanistan, proper defenses could be mustered in time. This was known as the "masterly inactivity" school, and it was probably right.

McChrystal's supporters argue that comparison with the Brits or Soviets is misplaced. "No one has ever tried counterinsurgency in Afghanistan," argues one key official. "The British didn't try to protect the Afghan population, and the Russians certainly didn't." This official cautions that McChrystal's goal isn't remaking Afghanistan into "a 21st-century Jeffersonian democracy," but something more realistic: "We're shooting for something above Somalia but below Bangladesh."

To get the flavor of McChrystal's strategy (the actual document remains classified), I reviewed the counterinsurgency guidance he has prepared for his troops. The headline reads: "Protecting the people is the mission. The conflict will be won by persuading the population, not by destroying the enemy."

The solution in Afghanistan isn't kinetic firepower, McChrystal argues, but the kinder, gentler tools of counterinsurgency. Indeed, "a military force, culturally programmed to respond conventionally (and predictably) to insurgent attacks, is akin to the bull that repeatedly charges a matador's cape -- only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent."

The counterinsurgency doctrine McChrystal is advocating has excited a new generation of military officers. I've seen it applied in outposts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's impossible not to be impressed by the dedication and even the idealism of its proponents. But there is little hard evidence that it will work in a country as large and impoverished as Afghanistan. Even in Iraq, the successes attributed to counterinsurgency came as much from bribing tribal leaders and assassinating insurgents as from fostering development projects and building trust.

Obama will have to roll the dice when he decides on Afghanistan strategy. McChrystal's broad approach is risky, but so is the limited, counterterrorism alternative that Biden and others are advocating. In truth, the kinetic counterterrorism approach is what we've been doing -- and it hasn't been working.

This may be one of those messy situations where the best course is to both shoot and talk -- a strategy based on the idea that we can bolster our friends and bloody our enemies enough that, somewhere down the road, we can cut a deal.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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