Biden, on the Afghanistan Debate, in His Own Words

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When President Obama began to deliberate on the path his administration would pursue in Afghanistan, Vice President Joe Biden's staff prepared a classi41Up63x2DzL._SL500_AA300_.jpgfied presentation for the National Security Council.

The document acquired a nickname in military circles: "From the Sea," because in it, Biden sketched out plans for a minimal deployment of American ground forces in the country. Instead, special operations forces deployed on Navy ships and submarines and from Air Force and Army airplanes would target Al Qaeda leaders and Taliban collaborators, one by one.

Only when necessary would tier-one special forces groups need to set foot on the ground. Secret, small intelligence-gathering cells would help find the targets, follow their trails, and complete the networks surrounding them. In public, this tactic became known as the "SOF" strategy, for Special Operations Forces. 

Within the military, there were winks and nods: here was yet another vice president discovering that the best way to degrade terrorist networks was to give special forces units carte blanche authority to close the networks down. Indeed, that had been the prevailing (and effective) counterterrorism strategy throughout the Bush Administration. But now, thanks to a successful surge in Iraq and the seeming renaissance of Al Qaeda-linked Taliban groups in Afghanistan, a new doctrine had taken hold, one that would require a much larger footprint and many, many more troops: Counterinsurgency, or COIN.

When Obama announced his strategy at West Point, the Washington establishment -- always looking for winners and losers -- deemed Biden a loser.

Obama surged 40,000 troops to Afghanistan. COIN won. But so did "SOF." The president endorsed both approaches. Internally, Biden was satisfied.

Shortly after the review was finished, the vice president described his role in the debate for Jules Witcover, who publishes excerpts of an extended interview in his new biography of Biden out later this year.

Biden says that, going into the debate, "I had an unfair advantage because I talked about this with the president more often and more regularly than anyone else." Biden knew "not just by body language [but] by direction assertion that [Obama] agreed with me on [the] fundamentals of the policy."

Biden said he and Obama agreed that "we were not in Afghanistan for nation building. We were not going to commit to provide and guarantee resources to build that country for the next ten years." There was agreement that "the COIN strategy was not appropriate for signing on indefinitely to a nation-building campaign." Thirdly, the "fundamental reason for being there was Al Qaeda," matched by the need to keep "Pakistan from disintegrating, and radicals from getting control of nuclear weapons, and that securing an Afghan government was in the service of the first two objects."

Biden said he often posed this question to national security principals: "If there was no Al Qaeda and Pakistan was stable, would you be making recommendations to put tens of thousands of troops and sending hundreds of billions of dollars to Afghanistan?" Biden says "the answer with several of the members was yes. Mine was emphatically no."

So the main disagreement, according to Biden, was whether defeating the Taliban was central, "was a linchpin," in being able "to work toward stabilizing everything from Iran to the subcontinent."

Biden wrote a 20-page, handwritten memo to the president a few days before he made the final decision. In it, he summarized the principles he believed the president had settled upon: a sense of the war as a three-dimensional conflict involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Al Qaeda; a hard limit on the number of troops deployed; a date when the drawdown would begin; a recognition that much of the Taliban could be integrated into Afghan society and that the Taliban, even when integrated, did not pose a threat of regaining control over the country; and an acknowledgment that "the Taliban was not an existential threat to the United States of America," and that "Al Qaeda's return to Afghanistan was unlikely" because they were already comfortable in Pakistan and would be unwelcome in Afghanistan.

According to Biden, Obama made it crystal clear to his generals that troops would have to be surged into Afghanistan, not built up.

The vice president believed that the military wanted to slowly add to its presence; he said the president decided to provide "the troops they need quicker, so that you could find out, and they agreed that by December [2010], we'll know whether the concept is working."

This also means: "there will not be any more troops in. The only question will be how rapidly we begin to drawn down the troops in July of 2011."

Obama told the generals: "Do not occupy what you cannot transfer."

Some generals, Biden noted, "abided" the order begrudgingly (my phrase).

That the number of troops became the public hinge point of the debate did not please the vice president. When Gen. Stanley McChrystal's plan was leaked, Biden's foreign policy adviser Tony Blinken told Witcover in late 2009 that "the number of troops ... became the barometer by which people gauged the topic."

Blinken makes the case that Biden's view carried significant weight in the review: "We're no longer talking about doing nation-building in Afghanistan, we're no longer talking about doing a counterinsurgency in every nook and cranny of the country, we're no longer talking about defeating the Taliban, which Biden argued was neither likely nor necessary."

But as of August 2010,  nation-building once again seems to be a key goal; the number of actual Al Qaeda in Afghanistan are few, according to the CIA. 

No one calls it nation-building, but "standing up civil societies," building trenches and roads, training teachers and protecting jurists -- that's nation building. And that's what McChrystal, in his final months, and now Gen. David Petraeus, seem focused on. One reason is that the Karzai government has not asserted its sovereignty in the way that Biden anticipated.

With the National Security Council set to begin drafting a second Afghan policy review just over a month from now, several presidential advisers believe that Biden's "From the Sea" approach may well be the one Obama decides is most effective. But getting from here to there requires a heavy lift that a zillion C-130s couldn't pull off.

On Face The Nation, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the U.S. presence in the region this way:

We left Afghanistan in the late '80s, we left Pakistan in the late '80s, and we find ourselves back there now. And certainly the questions that are out there from the citizens in those countries are, 'Are we going to stay this time or not?' I believe that we've got to stay.

A spokesperson for Mullen said that the JCS chair was referring to a "partnership between the governments.  That is what must be enduring -- the commitment to a nation-to-nation relationship must remain long after the troops come home."

"He is not at all anticipating or advocating for any sort of permanent military footprint in Afghanistan. He is fully supportive of the President's goal to start a transition in July 2011," the spokesperson said.


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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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