New Ideas for an Afghan War Strategy

As the White House weighs its options, the best ideas for what we should and shouldn't do

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After weeks of discussion, the White House is zeroing in on an Afghan war strategy. The New York Times reports that current thinking calls for a troop increase and a focus on protecting ten key cities in lieu of the countryside. But as discussions continue, the plan is still taking shape. Commentators continue to offer ideas on what we should and shouldn't do in Afghanistan, and what historical lessons we must take into account. Here are the best new ideas for long-term success in Afghanistan:

  • Build More Schools  The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof wants us to buoy Afghan civil society through education. "For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there," he writes. "It’s hard to do the calculation precisely, but for the cost of 40,000 troops over a few years — well, we could just about turn every Afghan into a Ph.D." Kristof concludes, "Schools are not a quick fix or silver bullet any more than troops are. But we have abundant evidence that they can, over time, transform countries, and in the area near Afghanistan there’s a nice natural experiment in the comparative power of educational versus military tools."
  • Let Afghanistan Fix Itself  The New York Times's Thomas Friedman insists our presence causes more harm than good. "We simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan." Friedman predicts what would happen after Americans scale down. "The Taliban factions will start fighting each other, the Pakistani Army will have to destroy their Taliban, or be destroyed by them, Afghanistan’s warlords will carve up the country, and, if bin Laden comes out of his cave, he’ll get zapped by a drone."
  • Don't Give In To Pentagon  The L.A. Times's Doyle McManus cautions against giving the military whatever they ask for. "What guarantee can Obama give that this won't be merely the first of many requests from his military command for more boots on the ground? Administration officials have been reading histories of the Vietnam War -- and shuddering at the spectacle of President Lyndon Johnson acceding to one Pentagon request after another," he writes. "Still, at least some administration officials are worried that this year's request from McChrystal might be followed by more; they want Obama to make it clear that next month's troop increase is the last he is willing to approve."
  • Secure The Countryside  Commentary's Max Boot argues that rural areas surrounding the cities are strategically key. "The problem lies in the countryside, where the Taliban have been pursuing the same strategy that the mujahideen used against the Soviets in the 1980s -- consolidate control in rural areas and then launch attacks on the cities where foreign troops are garrisoned," he writes. "Similarly, Baghdad did not start to become secure in 2007 until the U.S. deployed substantial surge troops to the 'gates' of the city -- the belt of rural territory surrounding the capital including the 'triangle of death' to the south."
  • Copy the Soviets  Matthew Yglesias makes a contrarian case that the U.S. should adopt the failed Soviet strategy in Afghanistan, which Yglesias says is similar to the currently discussed strategy of protecting cities over rural areas. "You probably won't see anyone describe it in those terms because it sounds bad, but as I’ve said before I think the right way to understand the Soviet experience is to see that the United States could probably make this work. It sort of worked for the Soviets, and they were a much weaker and poorer country facing people who were getting much more extensive external support than our adversaries."
  • Copy the Byzantines  The Weekly Standard's Stuart Koehl suggests, somewhat fantastically, that we should adopt the Byzantine military strategy of "the use of subversion as the cheapest path to victory." For example, "funneling support to opposition political groups." He writes, "Our military strategy is still focused on decisive battle, though some of our military leaders such as David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, are making the transition to a more Byzantine (in the best sense of the word) approach to dealing with low intensity threats." Koehl would likely support, then, the controversial CIA funding of Ahmed Wali Karzai.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.