The Way Forward in Afghanistan

| Fri Nov. 13, 2009 3:46 PM EST

Fred Kaplan tries to read the tea leaves in Afghanistan today.  Why is President Obama taking so long to decide on a strategy, and what is that strategy likely to be?

Counterinsurgency involves protecting the local population from insurgency groups, so that the national government is better able to provide basic services, thus winning popular support and undermining the insurgents' appeal. If the government is particularly corrupt or incompetent, it won't be able to build on the security wrought by a good counterinsurgency campaign, thus nullifying our success and sacrifice.

....Some advocates of the strategy have cautioned that counterinsurgency campaigns take years, even decades, to bear fruit....In the meantime, Obama told [Jake] Tapper that he and his advisers "are identifying not just a national government in Kabul but provincial government actors that have legitimacy in the right now."

This suggests that Obama is seeking ways to go around the central government — striking separate deals with provincial leaders or providing more or less intensive levels of support — if Karzai proves to be a feeble partner in our counterinsurgency campaign. Or it might suggest one way to exert leverage over Karzai — to make clear that we will empower regional players, and thus weaken his own standing, if he doesn't clean up his act, thus making his regime more legitimate in the eyes of his people and therefore better able to beat the Taliban in the competition for hearts and minds.

That's....plausible.  Obama likes the counterinsurgency approach, but without a credible government to back it up, it won't work.  Solution: find another government to work with. Make deals with tribal and provincial leaders instead of Hamid Karzai.  So he's asking his team to figure out if there's any chance of making that work.

It's an interesting thought.  Especially for a president trying to convince the country that his policy in Afghanistan is still reality based.

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