Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times ran an article claiming that the Obama administration was, in its meetings to determine future strategy and troop levels in Afghanistan, considering a "middle path" that would require sending fewer than the 40,000 troops General McChrystal has stated to be the minimum necessary to follow a counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy that might possibly work. According to the article:
It's one thing for President Obama to decide to not pursue a COIN strategy in favor of focusing on al Qaeda, as recommended by Biden. That is a strategic decision that, by virtue of its inherent logic, requires fewer troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. Letting the strategy determine the force posture is exactly how military planning is supposed to happen. But the Obama administration seems to be allowing its desired force posture guide its strategy, which is a disaster waiting to happen. This is exactly the mistake that the Bush administration made in the reconstruction of both Afghanistan and Iraq. In both situations, the strategy was determined by the number of troops the US was willing to commit in the field, rather than the desired strategy determining the appropriate troop levels.
As the Obama administration debates whether to shift its aims in Afghanistan, officials at the Pentagon and National Security Council have begun developing "middle path" strategies that would require fewer troops than their ground commander is seeking.
Measures under consideration include closer cooperation with local tribal chiefs and regional warlords, using CIA agents as intermediaries and cash payments as incentives, said current and former officials who described the strategies on condition of anonymity.
Other steps would concentrate U.S. and allied troops in cities, pulling out of Afghanistan's widely dispersed rural areas. At the same time, the allied forces would push ahead with plans to intensify training of Afghan troops, officials said.
None of the strategies envision troop reductions, but officials said they would not require the 40,000-troop increase preferred by Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander. A number of White House officials favor sending fewer than 20,000 additional troops.
With the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan already 8 years old, advocates of a middle approach question whether the American public will support a long-term effort.
"There is a growing view, a minority opinion, within the military that worries about the sustainability on the domestic front of what McChrystal is proposing," said an administration official. "A year and a half from now we could find there is not the will to sustain this McChrystal approach."
One approach would be to take McChrystal's plan and "pare it down," moving troops away from less important objectives, said a former official who served in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
The middle path strategies would not try to establish strict limits on U.S. efforts, such as focusing on attacking Al Qaeda, a posture once favored by Vice President Joe Biden.
The problem seems to be that Obama administration is worried that public opinion will not support a larger and longer commitment that will inevitably result in higher casualties (particularly in the short run). This problem is certainly exacerbated by the administration's domestic priorities and especially its effort to pass health care reform.
And here is where political science can be of use. The Obama administration is making the same mistake that Bill Clinton made in Somalia: misunderstanding the source of public discontent with military missions. As Peter Feaver (my graduate school professor and dissertation adviser) argues:
Research has shown that public support of a military campaign is chiefly a function of the mission's perceived stakes, the prospects for victory and the anticipated costs. Since the Persian Gulf War (though the seeds can be traced as far back as Vietnam), a myth has taken root among policymakers that only the costs matter -- that the public will only support policies that are "cheap" in the sense of not costing American lives. According to this view, the public rejected U.S. intervention in Somalia because American soldiers died, while it accepted our actions in Kosovo because no Americans died. This is the myth of the casualty-phobic public -- a canard that genuinely casualty-phobic policymakers have found expedient, but which has left America vulnerable to exactly the kind of terrorist attack we just witnessed. What is Osama bin Laden's fundamental premise if not the belief that killing some Americans will drive our country to its knees?
Actually, the public will support even a costly war provided the stakes warrant it and the president can persuasively promise victory. In this instance, the stakes could not be higher. What is lacking is a compelling account of victory, a frame for war aims that shapes how the public will interpret unfolding events.
Focusing on troop levels as the driver of strategic calculations undermines the ability to convey the "compelling account of victory" which is what in turn undermines public support for the military operations. President Bush, in spite of all the mistakes he and his administration made, did this during the surge (until the surge the Bush administration failed at this as well). It was clear to the American people what the surge was trying to accomplish and what would count as success.
If all the Obama administration is trying to is lower American casualties and avoid negative public opinion then it should simply find a way to get out, as that clearly signals that the US no longer has a strategic interest in Afghanistan. If it determines that the Taliban no longer poses a strategic threat to the US but that al Qaeda does, then Biden's plan makes sense. If it believes, as I do, that the two problems are linked and success will require dealing with both the Taliban and al Qaeda, that McChrystal's COIN strategy is the way to go.
The Obama administration must decide what its desired strategic outcome in Afghanistan is, and then listen to the military about what force package will be necessary to achieve the desired outcome. Letting politicians determine the force levels and then requiring the military to design strategy around those levels is doomed to fail.