Barack Obama is currently mulling what will certainly be some of the defining choices of his presidency: Should he send a lot more troops to Afghanistan, as his commander there has recommended, and, if so, what should their objectives be?
Understanding the issue is critical. So over the past couple weeks, TNR has commissioned a series of pieces examining various angles of our involvement in Afghanistan. Here they are:
"Stalemate" by A.J. Rossmiller, October 13, 2009. The conventional wisdom that "we are at a turning point in Afghanistan" is wrong, he says. Rather, we are in a protracted military stalemate, having essentially fought the same war each year, eight times over. Rossmiller argues that the only permanent solution lies with political efforts to promote power-sharing.
"The Civilian Surge Myth" by Steven Metz, October 15, 2009. U.S. counterinsurgency policy relies on the assumption that civilian agencies will help build a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan while the military secures the population. But, given the current state of America's civilian agencies, this is sheer fantasy.
"The Front" by Peter Bergen, October 19, 2009. Plans to limit U.S. involvement in Afghanistan by attacking Al Qaeda and accommodating the Taliban are ill-founded for one reason: Al Qaeda and the Taliban are merging. Bergen takes us inside the international terrorist group's organic relationship with the Taliban—and explains how it should affect Obama's decision.
"Is There a Middle Way?" Stephen Biddle, October 20, 2009. Military strategist Stephen Biddle examines all of the popular plans for a "light footprint" approach to Afghanistan, from reliance on drone attacks, to buying off warlords, to negotiating with the Taliban, to building up the Afghan security forces (and more). He finds that, while all are elements of a successful counterinsurgency strategy, none of them would be an adequate substitute.
"The Hard Sell" by Patrick J. Egan and Joshua A. Tucker, October 22, 2009. No matter what amount of troops Barack Obama sends to Afghanistan, he'll be making a perilous political decision that he'll have to sell the American people. The authors explain how Obama can play the issue, politically, to prevent it from wrecking his presidency.
"The Hurry-Up Offense" by Steven Metz, October 23, 2009. The U.S. military is reportedly growing frustrated with President Obama's indecisiveness about Afghanistan. But is this really justified? There's actually no policy reason, the author argues, to delay a choice about sending more troops to the country—in fact, the delay may have increased our bargaining power with Hamid Karzai's government. The only real problem is that Obama appears indecisive, and, as history shows, that can be solved.
"Recessional" by Jason Zengerle, October 24, 2009. Harvard Professor Rory Stewart is an influential voice on Afghanistan—well, sort of influential anyway. Washington decision makers are wowed by his old-world charms, as well as the cachet he derives from having crossed Afghanistan on foot, without a map. But they seem to take his warnings about deeper commitment to Southwest Asia with a grain of salt.