Many ideas for “intermediate options” for Afghanistan are gaining momentum in the Washington debate. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s request for tens of thousands of additional NATO (meaning U.S.) troops stands at one extreme, and a return to the minimalist counterterrorism strategy associated with former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld stands at the other. Those uncomfortable with both are proposing alternatives.
The motivations for such intermediate options are understandable. But in fact, most of the ideas are already inherent in the new concepts that Gen. McChrystal, supported by U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, have brought to the mission since their arrival in the spring. They are not alternatives to current strategy; they are elements of it.
One intermediate option is both promising and different from Gen. McChrystal’s concept: the idea of tying our future increases in American resources for Afghanistan to reciprocating measures by the Afghan government. This conditionality approach, if successful, ultimately will lead us toward the path favored by the existing U.S. command, but only if Afghans do their part and only over time.
First, a few clarifications on what Gen. McChrystal is proposing - or, in many cases, already doing - require emphasis. The general is receiving a bit of an unfair rap in Washington. Leave aside the brouhaha over his Oct. 1 comment in London that a minimalist U.S. approach to the war likely would lead to chaos in the country.
His critics fail to understand how many of their own supposedly new ideas for the war are already in his concept - and in fact, already written down in his strategic assessment, delivered to the administration in late August. Consider:
Negotiating with insurgents. The surge-based Iraq strategy of Gen. David H. Petraeus emphasized the need to split the enemy and reconcile with as much of it as possible. The Sunni Awakening and Muqtada al-Sadr’s cease-fire were two of the more important results of this philosophy (some of which predated Gen. Petraeus and the surge).
No one understands the appeal of such an approach better than a Central Command operation in Afghanistan run by Gens. Petraeus, McChrystal and Douglas Stone, who has overseen detainee operations in both places, and other key veterans of the Iraq war.
An apparent difference of approach admittedly is emerging. Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, while emphasizing the kind treatment of prisoners as well as outreach efforts to current resistance leaders, also seem to believe that reconciliation efforts work best from a position of strength.
If we have battlefield momentum, we make resistance leaders worry that to fight us is to perish and we also persuade more local fence-sitters to side with us rather than the Taliban and associated groups.
Accelerating training of the Afghan security forces. Rather than have NATO do more fighting, some would have the Afghans domost of it and orient NATO’s mission more toward training of indigenous forces. This is a time-tested and sound concept. Gen. McChrystal is already applying it. He envisions going well beyond the embedded mentors we used in modest numbers with Iraqi and Afghan army and police units in the past, also pairing up Afghan and NATO units so that each Afghan army or police formation has a “sister unit” of foreign forces. The pairs would live, train, plan, patrol, deploy and fight together.
There is, however, one matter the Obama administration must address, on which Gen. McChrystal generally has been silent. It concerns the Afghan government. For counterinsurgency and stabilization missions to work, we need a strong and legitimate indigenous partner government.
This also is an issue on which President Obama can play good cop to Congress’ bad cop in trying to persuade the Karzai government to improve its performance. He can point out that, while we are indeed in this war together, his fellow Democrats and his fellow Americans more generally are very concerned about our prospects for success in this war - with or without a troop increase - unless Afghan government integrity improves.
He even might wink at congressional efforts to introduce a form of conditionality on future support for war funding: The American taxpayer will increase its support for this war only if the Afghan government cleans up its act.
The specifics of an anti-corruption agenda are not hard to write down, even if they are difficult to implement: sharing of intelligence with President Hamid Karzai on the corrupt practices of some of his supporters and Cabinet ministers and governors, so he can fire the worst of the worst if they do not improve; creation of independent ombudsman positions at the national and local levels to allow for citizen complaints; creation of an informal form of dispute-resolution mechanisms to complement formal courts for citizens who are victims of corruption; and so on.
We will have to settle for imperfect and halting half-steps rather than a complete housecleaning. If Mr. Karzai improves his performance only slowly, we may have to add troops and resources incrementally rather than all at once - despite the potential downsides of this approach on the battlefield. But despite the huge differences, there is one way in which Afghanistan and Vietnam are similar: We cannot succeed without a viable domestic partner. Right now Mr. Karzai’s government is not measuring up, and so we must use every tool at our disposal to push, prod and cajole him to a higher standard of effectiveness.