Don't Define Strategy Too Narrowly in Afghanistan
To his credit, President Barack Obama has insisted on "getting the strategy right" before any escalation of the American commitment in Afghanistan. But getting strategy right must be understood to mean more than devising a plan likely to rout the Taliban, deny Afghan sanctuary to Al Qaeda, and weaken both groups in Pakistan. Any plan for escalation in Afghanistan should be required to meet the still higher demands of American grand strategy.
While the Obama administration has yet to formally articulate a global grand strategy, some of its core elements are clear. Al Qaeda is seen as a serious and potentially grave threat, and must be defeated. Nuclear threats emanating from Pakistan, North Korea and Iran must at a minimum be contained and deterred. Crises and contingencies in the usual and unforeseen hotspots will periodically arise, and call for an American response. Meanwhile, longer-term challenges posed by rising economic and strategic competitors must be prepared for. In sum, the U.S. has a broad portfolio of strategic interests around the globe. And that portfolio perspective needs to be uppermost in mind in designing the right strategy for any one theater.
Recognizing the priority of grand over theater strategy underscores several points—and suggests some prescriptions—about the way forward in Afghanistan.
First, a decision to escalate in Afghanistan should require an expectation of dramatic, not marginal, strategic benefit to the U.S. At the level of commitment that Gen. McChrystal is calling for in Afghanistan, more must be achieved than simply beating the Taliban and denying Al Qaeda a hospitable in-country environment. Among the questions to ask: would American "success" in Afghanistan entail a truly decisive blow to Al Qaeda, or would it simply regroup elsewhere, presenting the U.S. with still another territory to pacify at further great cost? How would this cycle end? And how much would "success" in Afghanistan likely mitigate the Taliban/Al Qaeda threat inside Pakistan-decisively, or only incrementally?
If a very expensive Afghan success for the U.S. would likely deal only a setback to Al Qaeda but not a crushing blow, and would ameliorate conditions in Pakistan only incrementally, it would be a "success" too expensively purchased.
Second, even if the counterinsurgency/nation-building strategy advocated by Gen. McChrystal could be presumed to be executed to perfection (over the course of a decade or longer, at elevated troop levels), it would almost certainly entail enormous "opportunity cost" for the U.S. in terms of its broader strategic agenda. Consider how the Iraq war has, for more than six years, undercut the White House's attention to Afghanistan as well as its credibility in threatening to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.
Strategy deliberations for Afghanistan cannot, then, focus exclusively on what will happen in the "AfPak" theater—important as it is—but must fully weight the opportunities to generate strategic advantage that the U.S. would predictably forego elsewhere, over a long timeframe. The complexity, diversity and pace of change of the global strategic landscape warrants a bias against missions requiring a decade-long military commitment to any single theater.
Third, policymakers should recognize that they are already caught in something of a trap that impels them toward an Afghan escalation-a trap that would likely tighten further with a larger force commitment. One of the loudest arguments in favor of doing whatever it takes to "win" in Afghanistan is that—however limited the strategic stakes might otherwise be—an American "defeat" that Al Qaeda and the global jihadi movement could claim would constitute a strategic debacle for the U.S., undermining America's credibility around the world and energizing its enemies.
But this is partly a trap of our own making. Rather than framing the Iraqi and Afghan wars as fronts within a broader strategic agenda that properly takes priority, they've been characterized as "must-win" and "wars of necessity." From this emanates an almost irresistible pressure to escalate in order to "win," whatever the costs.
Should President Obama ultimately decide to double down in Afghanistan, he must take pains to explicitly reframe this war within the broader context of American grand strategy. He should eschew the rhetoric of "winning" and "losing" and "war of necessity" that would further entrap him and limit his options to change direction should the national interest—in light of developments in the region and around the globe—call for our precious resources to be redeployed home or elsewhere.
As Clausewitz famously observed, war must never dictate policy but must remain subordinate to it. It's essential that the Obama administration evaluate its Afghanistan policy options through the broader lens of America's global strategy. Gen. McChrystal may well be right that "victory" in Afghanistan is achievable. But before embracing the course he recommends, the president must do everything he can to ensure that that victory, if it comes, won't have come at too high a price.