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The evolution of Obama's strategy for Afghanistan

Posted By Uncle Jimbo • [October 08, 2009]

There is a very detailed article in the Wash Po that tells just how things have progressed regarding Afghanistan since Obama took office. Prior to announcing his March strategy of reinforced, pop-centric counterinsurgency, he had a former CIA officer study the theater and options to get a quick answer.

In early March, after weeks of debate across a conference table in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the participants in President Obama's strategic review of the war in Afghanistan figured that the most contentious part of their discussions was behind them. Everyone, save Vice President Biden's national security adviser, agreed that the United States needed to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission to defeat the Taliban.

That conclusion, which was later endorsed by the president and members of his national security team, would become the first in a set of recommendations contained in an administration white paper outlining what Obama called "a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan." Preventing al-Qaeda's return to Afghanistan, the document stated, would require "executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy."

To senior military commanders, the sentence was unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

This led to the additional 21,000 troops that were authorized and sent there to begin implementing this strategy. Down the road Sec Def Gates and ADM Mullen lost faith in McKiernan as the right General to implement this effort and he was replaced with Gen. McChrystal. Part of the reason for his dismissal was his failure to request the additional troops, beyond the 21k, that Gates and Mullen believed were necessary to successfully prosecute a COIN mission.

By mid-April, Mullen and Gates had decided to replace McKiernan with McChrystal. Although McChrystal has a Special Forces counterterrorism background, he impressed Mullen and Gates with his thinking about counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Before he left for Kabul, Gates asked him to assess the mission and report back within 60 days.

To McChrystal and his senior advisers, the white paper was the strategy, and his job was to figure out how to implement it.

At the first meeting of a team of outside experts he convened to help him with the assessment, he told them, according to two attendees, that he wanted "a COIN campaign focused on the people."

After only a few weeks on the ground, it was evident to McChrystal that the situation was worse than he had expected and that there were far too few Afghan and NATO forces to protect the population. The hoped-for U.S. civilians were arriving too slowly. Although it was clear that asking for more troops would be controversial, it also seemed clear that the White House wanted a real counterinsurgency mission. And that would require more troops.

President Obama faces a difficult decision. If he does not give his commander the troops he needs to prosecute a COIN mission, the blame will go on his shoulders. But getting a 40k troop increase through a hostile Congress will cost him political capital and he has little available for this. A defining moment for sure.


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