Small Wars Journal

Is There a Middle Way?

Is There a Middle Way? - Stephen Biddle, The New Republic

General Stanley McChrystal's request to send more troops to Afghanistan has induced sticker shock for many Americans--including, apparently, President Obama. The integrated counterinsurgency, or COIN, strategy that McChrystal wants to pursue has many components: protecting Afghan civilians, rapidly expanding the Afghan army and police, reforming government, providing economic development assistance, weaning Taliban fighters and leaders away from Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, reconciling them into the new government, and targeting those who refuse. This makes it a demanding strategy that McChrystal reportedly believes will require providing at least an additional 10,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops and more than doubling existing Afghan forces to a total of 400,000 indigenous soldiers and police. (Full disclosure: I served as a member of General McChrystal's assessment team in June and July 2009, but I do not speak for his command, and the views expressed here are strictly my own.) This price tag has further galvanized opposition to a war whose support was already fading fast.

Few, however, actually want to leave Afghanistan outright. Instead, most pair their opposition to reinforcement with support for a middle way--a more limited presence intended to secure U.S. interests without the cost and risk of escalation. Opponents have proposed at least a half-dozen such "middle ways," ranging from greater reliance on drone-based counterterrorism strikes to early pursuit of a negotiated settlement to end the war. The specifics are often fuzzy; none has been articulated with the detail of McChrystal's proposal, particularly regarding troop requirements. But most are tantamount to splitting off a piece of McChrystal-style integrated COIN and executing it alone. Some critics propose pursuing pieces in combination, but none attempts the totality, and, especially, none includes McChrystal's large U.S. ground combat presence for protecting Afghan civilians. For all, the underlying idea is to reduce the cost of the war without abandoning the U.S. interest in denying Al Qaeda a base for attacking the West or destabilizing neighboring Pakistan.

It is easy to see why such middle ways are so popular. They could lighten the burden on the federal deficit. They could put fewer Americans in harm's way. They would seem to better fit the U.S. interests at stake, which are real but limited and indirect. They appeal to the centrism of many American voters. The problem is that they probably won't work.

The reasons vary from proposal to proposal, but the basic problem is that the pieces of COIN are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts; implementing just one or two pieces alone undermines their effectiveness. It might make sense to do less and accept a greater risk of failure, depending on one's tolerance for risk and cost. But there is no magic middle way between the McChrystal recommendation and total withdrawal that offers comparable odds at lower cost. In counterinsurgency, less is not more...

Much more at The New Republic.

Stephen Biddle is the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.