Can the U.S. 'Offshore' Its Afghanistan War?

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Demetrius Lester / USAF / Sipa

An MQ-1 Predator returns to Bagram air base in Afghanistan after an Operation Enduring Freedom mission

Pity President Obama for having to open the Afghanistan file that was sitting on his Oval Office desk when he returned to work this week. His handpicked commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has warned that the war is being lost, and the only way to win it is to increase the U.S. stake — a request for more troops is widely anticipated in the coming weeks. But the war is losing support among Obama's fellow Democrats and a growing share of the U.S. public. On Sept. 1, leading conservative columnist George Will added his voice to the mounting chorus of skepticism and advocated a pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The U.S., he wrote in the Washington Post, should begin fighting from "offshore" by means of "intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units."

Is waging an offshore war an option in Afghanistan? At first glance, the strategy seems to be working more or less across the border in Pakistan. A sprinkling of U.S. forces — and contractors — there have for months been using Predator drone strikes to wallop al-Qaeda leaders in numerous Pakistan redoubts, killing dozens of key insurgents. The acknowledged U.S. toll: zero dead. That's in stark contrast to the 813 Americans killed so far in Afghanistan. And if the deployment of tens of thousands of U.S. troops is necessary to prevent the country from being turned into an al-Qaeda sanctuary, is the U.S. Army ready to go hopscotching in a global game of Whack-A-Mole for years to come as it drives the movement from one failed state to another?

Obama faces a key decision in the coming weeks on Afghanistan. He has already sent 21,000 troops there this year, boosting the U.S. total to 68,000, along with some 40,000 NATO allies. But McChrystal will probably ask for 10,000 to 20,000 more — just as the President is wrestling with health-care reform and a still feeble economy. Can the war in Afghanistan, as Will suggests, be fought on the cheap? "The Afghan state is too weak to handle this fight on its own right now and will collapse if we try this," counters Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. "The only dependable way to prevent al-Qaeda from having a future sanctuary in Afghanistan is to give Afghans the tools to stabilize their own country."

Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who has been advising McChrystal, says drones don't work everywhere. They can be easily shot down by even a "third-rate air force," he says, which is what the Taliban would have if they clawed their way back into power in Afghanistan. And using drones to eliminate enemy personnel requires good intelligence from sources on the ground, he adds, something that would melt away if the Taliban reclaimed power.

Biddle isn't overly concerned about Afghanistan's falling yet again into the hands of the Taliban. But he is concerned about its nuclear-armed neighbor. "At some level, the loss of Afghanistan could be tolerated," he says. "There's nothing especially unique about Afghanistan as a haven for striking the U.S. Yemen, Djibouti or Somalia could play that role — there are lots of ill-governed spaces around the world that could. But Afghanistan is unique in its proximity to Pakistan and its potential role in destabilizing Pakistan if Kabul falls under a Taliban government."

Yet eight years of war with no end in sight leaves other military experts vexed. "Having to a great extent captured, killed and seriously disrupted the al-Qaeda leadership and training infrastructure in Afghanistan, the necessity, and therefore the strategy for this war, has gotten away from us," Air Force Major Jeremy Kotkin, a strategist with the U.S. Special Operations Command, wrote on Aug. 31 in Small Wars Journal, an independent counterinsurgency blog. "We have transferred the consequence of the very real threat of al-Qaeda to the Taliban, to fields of Afghan poppies, and to the political and economic shambles that was and is Afghanistan." Such mission creep, he says, has made the nation's task in Afghanistan far tougher than originally intended.

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel, says the drone strikes are paying off in Pakistan because of that nation's "quasi-legitimate government and reasonably effective army" — neither of which Afghanistan has. "So I don't think we can say the methods employed in Pakistan are the right template for Afghanistan." But he does call the war "misguided and unnecessary" and says the U.S. should work with the country's tribal chiefs to ensure stability in their respective valleys. And offshore spy-and-strike capabilities could, at a minimum, keep al-Qaeda off balance in the region "and optimally destroy whatever entity is engaged in a plot."

Beyond such tactical issues, Bacevich, who served in Vietnam, is baffled by the willingness of today's U.S. Army officers to engage in a never-ending counterinsurgency. "If you're in my generation, it is simply extraordinary that we now have an officer corps that accepts protracted, morally ambiguous warfare as its destiny," says Bacevich, now a professor at Boston University. "They have embraced this as the new American way of war, heedlessly, thoughtlessly and — in terms of what the larger interests of the country require — very foolishly." Obama will be weighing precisely those larger interests in the days ahead.