[I apologize for all the recent posts on Obama and US foreign policy. I plan to get back to broader discussions of international security, but there've just been too many issues of interest in USFP to pass up.)
President Obama is rapidly approaching what may prove to be the most important and defining decision of his presidency: What to do in Afghanistan. The military has presented Obama with a number of possible plans, but most sources agree that General Stanley McChrystal has told Obama that an increase of 40,000 US troops in Afghanistan is the minimum number necessary to prevent the collapse of the US-led effort there. If this option is selected, the thinking seems to be that US troops would begin implementing COIN (counter-insurgency strategy) along the lines of what was done in Iraq after the surge: Extend protection for Afghan citizens in an effort to separate them away from the Taliban and allow for the creation of government institutions and the provision of services (this report from Reuters does a nice job of illustrating what will be required for the COIN strategy to work). If the US's goal is to stabilize Afghanistan and continue moving Afghanistan down the road to democracy, most analysts see adopting a COIN strategy as the only way.
McChrystal also offered the president two other options: A troop increase of more than 40,000 (the more the better to implement COIN) and an option of no troop increase. Implicit in the third options (it very well have been made explicit, but we don't have the details of the meeting yet) is that sending anything less than 40,000 more soliders isn't worth the effort or the lives as it won't create a large enough force to protect and stabilize the country. These proposals come at a time when the US is hotly debating which strategy should be adopted in Afghanistan. One side, led by Vice President Biden is urging the president not to push for a large increase in troop presence and to focus on hunting down al Qaeda in Pakistan instead of continuing to attempt to stabilize Afghanistan. The other side, mainly the military (Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton have yet to reveal their preferences) continues to argue for a classic COIN strategy and the tens of thousands of troops that will require.
Increasingly, however, the Obama administration seems to be moving towards focusing on al Qaeda instead of Afghanistan. And while there has been no formal (or at least public) decision on McChrystal's proposal, Obama has begun backing away from his previous position of Afghanistan as a "necessary war." Last week, a senior administration official told the Associated Press that "Obama is prepared to accept some involvement in Afghanistan's political future and appears inclined to send only as many more U.S. troops as needed to keep at bay."
The problems in Afghanistan certainly make it easier to move away from the COIN option to a focus on al Qaeda. Between the magnitude of the electoral fraud rampant in the August elections becoming increasingly apparent on one hand and reports of the failure of US efforts to create a functioning, legitimate government on on the other, it becomes harder and harder for Obama to justify sending thousands of American men and women to fight and die for the corrupt and inefficient Karzai regime.
The dilemma facing Obama demonstrates the difficulties the US has pursing its foreign policy, particularly in the long term. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, "a democracy finds it difficult to coordinate the details of a great undertaking and to fix on some plan and carry it through with determination in spite of obstacles. ...[T]he tendency of [the United States is] to obey its feelings rather than its calculations and to abandon a long-matured plan to satisfy a momentary passion...." Just last month, Obama was referring to Afghanistan as a "war of necessity" and warning that "those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again" referring to the nexus between al Qaeda and the Taliban.
By itself al Qaeda does not pose a truly serious threat to the US and its interests. Since the loss of its base in Afghanistan, al Qaeda has had difficulty carrying out any significant operations of any real complexity (the Spanish train bombing and the London bus bombings, while horrifying, do not represent the kind of sophisticated operation that al Qaeda would like to be implementing; the London attack in particular had very little strategic payoff). But the Taliban, in fact, both by itself and in conjunction with al Qaeda do, in fact, represent a significant threat.
First, the Taliban in Afghanistan is rapidly increasing in numbers, growing from 7,000 to an estimated 25,000 in just three years, and is becoming more and more independent from its Pakistan branch. If the US fails to deal with this insurgency and backs away from the Karzai government (or whichever government is running Afghanistan), it is more than possible that the Taliban would reclaim control of the country. Setting aside the human rights disaster that would inevitably ensue, al Qaeda would likely quickly return from the mountainous regions of Pakistan and reestablish its more centralized organizational structure that enabled it to carry out the 9/11 attacks.
Secondly, the Pakistan branch of the Taliban is posing a serious problem to Pakistan. It wasn't all that long ago that the Taliban was threatening the stability of the Pakistani government, prompting fears over the security of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. Increasingly, the Taliban is attacking Pakistani nuclear facilities, and the recent attack against an army headquarters in Rawalpindi makes clear the growing capability and sophistication of the Taliban's military power.
One could make the case about Afghanistan that the US has no real interest in the government there and that containing the Taliban and focusing on al Qaeda would be a better strategy. But when Pakistan is added into the equation, the porous border makes it vital that the US do more to root out the Taliban in Afghanistan itself. If the US backs away, both the Taliban and al Qaeda currently in Pakistan will return to Afghanistan and continue their attacks against both Pakistan and the world from relative safety.
Merely focusing on al Qaeda in Pakistan or on the governance of Afghanistan is too short-sighted. The nexus of the Taliban in both countries, the relationship with al Qaeda and the potential fragility of Pakistan make this a very serious problem and one of considerable importance to US national interest and global security. Obama needs to remember why he argued for some time that Afghanistan, and not Iraq, was the proper focus of the war on terror.
But even if he chooses to focus on al Qaeda, he needs to make a decision soon and in a decisive manner. The current dithering is rapidly undermining domestic public and political opinion which will, in turn, make it more difficult to sustain whichever option Obama picks. When the commander-in-chief determines that American soldiers need to be sent into harm's way, he needs to clearly justify his rationale to the American people and Congress.