A strategy shift in Afghan war?

Last Updated 24 September 2009, 16:11 IST

The options under review are part of what administration officials described as a wholesale reconsideration of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago. Two new intelligence reports are being conducted to evaluate Afghanistan and Pakistan, one official said.

The sweeping reassessment has been prompted by deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and a dire report by Obama’s new commander, Gen Stanley A McChrystal. Aides said the president wants to examine whether the strategy he unveiled in March was still the best approach and whether it could work with the extra combat forces McChrystal wants.

In looking at other options, aides said Obama may just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he is not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to the anticipated troop request from McChrystal. But the review suggests the president is having second thoughts about how deeply to engage in an intractable eight-year conflict that is not going well.

Though Obama believes a stable Afghanistan is central to the security of the United States, some advisers said he is also wary of becoming trapped in an overseas quagmire. Some Pentagon officials worry that he is having what they called ‘buyer’s remorse’ after ordering an extra 21,000 troops there within weeks of taking office before even settling on a strategy.

Obama met in the Situation Room with his top advisers on Sept 13 to begin chewing through the situation, said officials involved in the debate. Among those on hand were Biden, defence secretary Robert M Gates, secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, James L Jones, the national security adviser, and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

They reached no consensus, so three or four more such meetings are being scheduled. “There are a lot of competing views,” said one official who, like others in this article, requested anonymity to discuss internal administration deliberations.


Among the alternatives being presented to Obama is Biden’s suggestion to revamp the strategy altogether. Instead of increasing troops, officials said Biden has proposed scaling back the overall American military presence. Rather than trying to protect the Afghan population from the Taliban, American forces would concentrate on strikes against Qaeda cells, primarily in Pakistan, using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics.

The Americans would accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they take the lead against the Taliban. But the emphasis would shift to Pakistan. Biden has often said that the US spends something like $30 in Afghanistan for every $1 in Pakistan, even though in his view the main threat to American national security interests is in Pakistan.

Obama rejected Biden’s approach in March, and it is not clear that it has more traction this time. But the fact that is on the table again speaks to the breadth of the administration’s review and the evolving views inside the White House of what has worked in the region and what has not. In recent days, officials have expressed satisfaction with the results of their cooperation with Pakistan in hunting down Qaeda figures in the unforgiving border lands.

A shift from a counterinsurgency strategy to a focus on counterterrorism would turn the administration’s current theory on its head. The strategy Obama adopted in March concluded that to defeat al-Qaeda, the US needs to keep the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan and making it a safe haven once again for Osama bin Laden’s network. Biden’s position questions that assumption.

(Published 24 September 2009, 16:11 IST)

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