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Plan A-Minus for Afghanistan

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel

The strategy in Afghanistan, as outlined by President Obama in his December 2009 West Point speech and earlier March 2009 policy review, still has a good chance to succeed. Described here as Plan A, it is a relatively comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy, albeit one with a geographic focus on about one-third of Afghanistan’s districts. Directed at defeating the insurgency or at least substantially weakening it, while building up Afghan institutions, it has reasonable prospects of achieving these goals well enough to hold together the Afghan state and prevent the establishment of major al Qaeda or other extremist sanctuaries on Afghan soil.

Nevertheless, the strategy is not guaranteed to succeed, for reasons having little to do with its own flaws and more to do with the inherent challenge of the problem. Critics of the current strategy are right to begin a discussion of what a backup strategy, or a Plan B, might be. The most popular alternative to date emphasizes targeted counterterrorism operations, rather than comprehensive counterinsurgency—especially in the country’s Pashtun south and east where the insurgencies are strongest.

The United States should have a debate over Plan B, but the above version is highly problematic. Its proponents are serious people motivated by serious considerations—they worry that the current war is not winnable, or at least that it is not winnable at costs commensurate with the strategic stakes they perceive in Afghanistan. Yet, it would be troubling if the U.S. debate in 2011 was forced to choose effectively between this kind of backup plan and the current robust counterinsurgency approach. There is a better way if a fallback option is needed. Rather than conceding at least one-third of the country to extremists and reducing NATO forces quickly, the United States should tie its force drawdown to the growth and maturation of Afghan security forces. Under this plan, described here as Plan A-, U.S. and other foreign forces would have to keep fighting hard in Afghanistan for 2-4 more years, even as they gradually passed the baton to Afghan forces, but the United States would not need to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, and would not tie its downsizing to the stabilization of all key terrain.

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