In European capitals, the debate over how to approach the ongoing war in Afghanistan has stagnated. Recent proposals have brought nothing new to the table. European public opinion is broadly aligning against further involvement in the country, and an increasing consensus supports slowly but surely drawing down both military and civilian operations. In the United States, public opinion is similar, but there are more choices to make, and the debate over the future of the war is playing out in public.
In the last two months, there have been two major reports laying the groundwork for President Barack Obama’s decision on Afghanistan. The two fundamental positions are the report by General Stanley McChrystal which was “leaked” to the media in September, and Senator John Kerry’s speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on October 26.
What is interesting in this debate is the shift it signifies from the number of troops in Afghanistan – which had preoccupied the media for months – to the much more central and difficult questions of general strategy and objectives there. Both Kerry and General McChrystal agree that the endgame will be a counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaeda and an exit strategy for US combat forces from Afghanistan. But that is where the similarities end.
McChrystal’s strategy is more ambitious, centred on defeating the Taliban altogether, as opposed to Kerry’s approach, which is more modest, with a narrower definition of US interests in Afghanistan and a greater understanding of the political constraints of American and European involvement in the country.
These two texts are very different in nature. One is a report on the current situation, written by the general in charge of the new strategy, as defined last March, trying to justify its manifest lack of progress. In contrast, Kerry’s speech is a public document, and a likely trial balloon for what Obama himself will propose in the next two weeks.
Yet the two analyses are important in their own right, because they define different strategies in Afghanistan.
First, and probably most significantly, McChrystal suggests a strategy to take back control of the population centres, whereas Kerry is much more limited in his aims, proposing a strategy that essentially involves defending urban centres from the Taliban. In more concrete terms, Kerry implicitly criticises the idea that the US can marginalise the Taliban militarily and politically in the next year. This is a major difference of Kerry’s approach, which recognises the limitations of American power, and focuses on the long-term "Afghanisation" of the war. So far, McChrystal’s strategy has not produced major results, in Helmand or in any other part of the Pashtun belt, other than a dramatic increase in the number of casualties, which are up 60 percent over 2008.
Second, John Kerry’s approach focuses on the narrow state-building process, and suggests allocating more resources for the fight against al-Qaeda in the long term. In addition, Kerry also seems very sceptical about the nature of Pakistan’s support for US policy in Afghanistan.
Both Kerry and McChrystal show benign but worrisome neglect for what is going on in the north of the country. McChrystal states that the north is not a priority, even as the situation in Kunduz and Herat continues to deteriorate rapidly. Kerry, too, bets that the non-Pashtun population will reject the Taliban in the north, thus protecting the area from the insurgents. This analysis is too optimistic. In certain parts of the north, the Pashtun population is significant, and the insurgency destabilises the relationship between Kabul and the local communities.
As Kerry’s speech shows, at least some people in the White House are sceptical about sending more troops – always more troops – into Afghanistan. They are conscious that even the 40,000 reinforcements McChrystal has requested will not break the Taliban’s momentum.
Kerry’s remarks suggest a different strategy, a more limited and practical approach that will enable the United States to accomplish its objectives at more modest and politically manageable costs. This approach will likely be more palatable to European audiences, as well – securing a stronger and more lasting European commitment to building a better Afghan government.
This article first appeared in E!Sharp as part of a series of special reports designed to raise the debate in Europe on Afghanistan and the broader crisis gripping south Asia.