America’s Strategic Options in Afghanistan

The Obama administration is debating whether to send more American troops to Afghanistan. There are currently 68,000 soldiers and Marines there, not including those from other NATO countries. The deliberations are taking place after top military commanders in Afghanistan said that they do not have enough troops to effectively implement the current “population-centric” counterinsurgency strategy, the primary aim of which is to continuously protect Afghan civilians from Taliban insurgents.

There are basically three different strategies that the US can pursue in Afghanistan. One is to maintain troop levels as they are and attempt to quickly build up Afghan security forces to the extent that they can bear most of the burden for securing their country. This is a middle-of-the-road, “medium footprint” strategy.

Another option is to significantly increase troop levels.  This is essentially a nation-building strategy.  The US would bear most of the burden of securing the country in the near-to-medium term, and training Afghan secruity forces would be a long-term project. Facilitating economic development and trying to make the central government more effective (partly by curbing corruption) would undoubtedly be a major part of this “heavy footprint” strategy.

An additional option would be to significantly reduce troop levels and rely on special operations forces (including drone aircraft armed with missiles) to attack Al Qaeda militants in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.  By doing so, the US would be adopting a “search and destroy” approach similar to that of the George W. Bush administration, and killing Al Qaeda militants would be the main focal point of this “light footprint” strategy rather than protecting civilians from the Taliban.

It appears unlikely that President Obama will embrace the “light footprint” approach.  During an interview on Monday, he rejected the notion that special operations forces alone would be effective.

“I assure you that if that were the case, you wouldn’t see 68,000 of our young men and women deployed in Afghanistan,” he told the press.

But he also suggested that he was wary of becoming bogged down in Afghanistan.

He said “The dangers of overreach and not having clear goals and not having strong support from the American people, those are all issues that I think about all the time.”

Unless President Obama redefines the mission in Afghanistan, it is highly unlikely that he will refrain from sending more troops and deny military commanders the resources they say they will need to be successful.  If the mission remains the same, the American footprint in Afghanistan will almost certainly be heavier in the months ahead than it is now.  How much heavier it will be is the key question facing policymakers.

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