PRESIDENT OBAMA confronts the most fateful foreign policy decision so far of his administration. Rapidly deteriorating security in Afghanistan, the post-election political crisis in Kabul, highlighted by Abdullah Abdullah’s decision to drop out of the runoff vote, and General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 44,000 troops rightly spurred Obama to call a timeout for reflection. Over the past eight weeks, in a process with little precedent in American presidential decision-making, the president and his advisers have held more than a half-dozen no-holds-barred seminars examining and reexamining every dimension of this challenge.
Reduced to a single bottom line, Obama must decide whether to accept the recommendation of his chosen military commander in the field to Americanize this war. McChrystal’s call for more troops would expand US forces in Afghanistan to more than 100,000 in order to execute what he terms a “classic counterinsurgency campaign.’’
Meanwhile, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a major speech last week summarizing his own analysis of the issue and offering advice about the president’s choices. The judgments are nuanced, but no more so than the realities.
On the bottom line question - yes or no on McChrystal’s request—Kerry says no. He argues that McChrystal reaches “too far, too fast.’’ Kerry recommends that further troop increases must meet three conditions: reliable Afghan troops to partner with American forces, local political leaders, and civilian advisers to speed development. Truth be told, none of these three will be in place soon.
Kerry’s analysis begins with the most important consideration: US national interests. What should Americans care about here? What matters more than other things that matter? Kerry says: Pakistan—not Afghanistan. His focal question about Afghanistan is how developments there impact Pakistan. Over the past months he has led efforts to spotlight the anomaly that allocates 30 times more American time and resources to Afghanistan when our much larger interests lie in Pakistan. Thanks to his efforts with Senator Richard Lugar, the United States has committed $7½ billion over five years to help stabilize this nuclear-armed nation at risk of becoming the “epicenter of extremism in the world.’’
Second, what are America’s vital interests in Afghanistan? Kerry answers that it is to “prevent the Taliban—with their long-standing ties to Al Qaeda—from once again providing terrorists with an unfettered Afghan safe haven.’’ Period. Note what this sparse summary does not include: nation-building of a stable centrally-governed Afghanistan. Like all Americans, Kerry applauds the progress Afghanistan has made in becoming more democratic, expanding rights for women, building schools. None of these, however, is included in his minimum essentials for success.
Third, he defines success as “the ability to empower and transfer responsibility to Afghans as rapidly as possible and achieve a sufficient level of stability to ensure that we can leave behind an Afghanistan that is not controlled by Al Qaeda or the Taliban.’’ He does not say an Afghanistan in which some Taliban are not ruling in some areas.
Fourth, he rejects “all-in’’ counterinsurgency. In its place he recommends “smart counterinsurgency,’’ the crux of which is “limited geographic area…as narrowly focused as possible.’’ Counterinsurgency’s central objective is to “foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government.’’ In contrast, the strategy Kerry recommends could be achieved by “good enough’’ stability in Kabul and the major population centers of a minimalist state cooperative enough to rent bases and supply lines, provide an operating environment for attacks against Al Qaeda, and assist with intelligence gathering.
Kerry’ advances the argument by distinguishing between the vivid and the vital, lowering ambitions to “what is achievable, measured against the legitimate interests of the United States’’ and outlining a strategy to that end. It is a speech that the president should, and no doubt will, examine closely.
Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of “Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe.’’