Why The White House Remains Skeptical Of A New Troop Surge


President Obama doesn't react well to ultimatums, but the interagency process he is using to review the new policy doesn't foreclose on the possibility that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will get exactly what he wants.

But the easiest way to understand the divide between McChrystal and the White House staff -- and it really is, at this point, between him and the staff, not between him and Obama -- is to look at the way the debate has been framed: for McChrystal, Afghanistan will dodder into chaos unless 40,000 more troops are in place within 10 months. For the White House, defeating the Al Qaeda ideology worldwide, with development, peacemaking and diplomacy -- delegitimizing it -- is just as important. There's a sense that the COIN (counter-insurgency) strategy cannot succeed unless the U.S. somehow interposes itself between Pakistan and Afghanistan and keeps Pakistani Pashtuns from intermingling. The supply of new fighters is outpacing the capacity to kill them -- and that might be true, even with 40,000 more troops -- assuming that 40,000 more troops can be mobilized and sent into battle within 10 months -- and assuming that, somehow, a large portion of the troop tranche will dedicate their time to training an Afghan army.

Where McChrystal and the White House agree is that the Taliban tribes -- religious, familiar, historical -- will ally with whomever they believe will serve their own interests the most. Right now, in the absence of a credible government in Kabul, or the presence of a nationwide Afghan military force, the links between the Taliban (a religious/leadership structure) and Al Qaeda (a source of money, fear and ideology) are Yale-lock tight. Perhaps -- perhaps -- winning over civilians is impossible -- Afghanistan is not a country, but a collection a tribes, a collection that "large military structures" that reek of U.S. imperial ambitions (this is Sen. Jim Webb's formulation) cannot possibly seek to ally with; dedicating U.S. resources to a better and strategic counterterrorism policy -- one that is properly resourced and is combined with aggressive non-military endeavors -- will reduce the threat enough and will discredit the Al Qaeda ideology enough.  Those who hold this view -- Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Adviser James Jones -- are skeptical that even thousands of more troops could effectively build an Afghanistan army that is capable of acting without massive U.S. help.

The problem is that, if there's one general who knows about the limitations of using a military counterterrorism strategy to defeat Al Qaeda, it's the guy who was in charge of black ops for the past five years -- and that'd be Gen. Stanley McChrystal. And there's a strong sense that the mobile counterrrorism concept has already been tried in Afghanistan, and failed.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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