The War in Afghanistan in Strategic Context PDF Thumbnail

Mr. Chairman, distinguished members of the subcommittee, I welcome the opportunity to discuss our strategy in Afghanistan and to place it within the context of our overall strategic position.

Background to the Current Situation

In its march 2009 white paper on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the administration correctly identified the key aspects of the threat posed by the radical Muslim groups centered in western Pakistan. At that time, the president wisely announced a strategy centered on classic counterinsurgency principles, with emphasis on securing the Afghan population and enhancing the country’s governance. This effort was to be matched by efforts designed to strengthen Pakistan and to ensure its cooperation in confining the enemy groups to a progressively smaller area and eventually eliminating them as a serious threat. As President Obama declared at the time, “we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future. That is the goal that must be achieved.”

As recently as August, the president noted that success in the conflict is critical to our nation’s security when he stated that Afghanistan “is not a war of choice. It is a war of necessity.” He went on to say that, “if left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans.” Clearly, the president believes the consequences of losing the war are quite high, and, from that, one might reasonably infer that he is willing to incur substantial risks to achieve his war aims.

In may the president named a new commander of the war effort in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, to execute this strategy and achieve his stated war objectives. Given that the general was hand-picked by the administration, it seems reasonable to assume that he shared its assessment of the threat’s character and the strategy for defeating it. Moreover, based on those portions of the McChrystal report that were leaked to the public, the general’s plan for implementing the administration’s strategy appears both consistent with the strategy and militarily sound.

General McChrystal’s review was followed by a request for additional troops to execute the strategy, and this request is being reviewed by the president. The decision on whether to honor this request would seem to center on the answers to two questions: first, “What level of force is needed to achieve our war objectives?” and second, “What risks do we incur in providing this level of support?” Put another way, if the risks of providing the support outweigh the benefits of achieving our objectives, or if some previously unknown major flaws in the strategy have emerged, then the strategy might have to be reconsidered.