- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

Intense debate has raged for weeks on whether President Obama should send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but the dispute over numbers may be distracting attention from the more important decision he is facing: the need for a new strategy.

“Additional forces are required, but focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely,” Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in his now famous report to the president that was leaked to the press in September.

Among the key decisions the president will make is whether to partner with an Afghan government hobbled by accusations of widespread fraud in a recent election, how to handle the prickly diplomatic situation in neighboring Pakistan, and how much effort to put into training the Afghan army.

But perhaps the most pivotal decision, however, is whether the Taliban is a force that must be completely defeated, or whether it can be bargained with.

Peter Mansoor, a professor of military history at Ohio State University who served as a top adviser to Gen. David H. Petraeus in Iraq, said President Obama’s military reviews “are addressing all three facets of strategy: ends, ways, and means.”

“The media, and by extension the American people, are focused on means, (troop numbers),” Mr. Mansoor said in an e-mail. “But as or more important than this factor are the administration’s goals (ends) in Afghanistan and its concept for prosecution of the war (ways). You need to look at all three in unison to get a clear picture of the way ahead.”

The White House is assessing whether allowing the Taliban to continue its ascendance in Afghanistan would destabilize the region and recreate a safe haven for al Qaeda terrorists. Where they come down will set in motion an enormous shift in one of two directions.

If Mr. Obama decides that he wants to seek reconciliation with elements of the Taliban that are motivated solely by economics - a strategy advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. - it would mean keeping the U.S. force around its current level of 68,000 and countering the most radical elements with special forces and aerial drone strikes.

On the other hand, Gen. McChrystal’s strategic recommendation is predicated on the assumption that allowing the Taliban to regain control of large parts of the country would be disastrous for U.S. interests and American standing in the world.

His new strategy would focus on two primary objectives: securing the Afghan population in an attempt to win them over from the Taliban, and building governmental and military institutions that can take over from the NATO coalition in coming years without being overcome by the Taliban.

In military jargon, it would mean a move away from “repetitive raiding” and toward a “persistent presence” among the Afghan people.

The strategy is counterintuitive in that it is defensive rather than offensive, but the founders of the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency doctrine argue that it steals the initiative from the enemy.

Mr. Obama on Wednesday morning completed his fifth lengthy review session in three weeks with top Cabinet, military, diplomatic, intelligence and political advisers in the White House. The administration says troop levels have been on the table since last Friday’s session, but that the first three meetings were a look at the broader picture that led up to a conversation about whether additional resources were needed.

Though there were originally only five meetings scheduled, a sixth is planned for next week, and the White House has said Mr. Obama is still weeks away from a decision.

On Wednesday, the president and his advisers discussed how to better coordinate the efforts of the U.S.-led NATO military coalition with diplomatic governance programs and civilian aid organizations. This, along with an improvement in coordination among the 26 individual NATO member forces in Afghanistan, are two of the biggest challenges facing the war effort, experts have said.

“Any strategy that separates the military and civil side of U.S. and allied activity is fatally flawed,” said Anthony Cordesman, one of the top experts on U.S. military conflicts and national security challenges, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“One of the major gaps in the present U.S. debate over strategy lies in the extent to which it has focused almost exclusively on the military side of the problem,” Mr. Cordesman said.

• Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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