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Washington Quarterly: Plan A-Minus for Afghanistan

Authors: Michael E. O'Hanlon, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, and Bruce O. Riedel, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Winter 2011


In light of potentially insurmountable challenges to Obama's Afghanistan plan, Michale O'Hanlon and Bruce Ridel express alarm over alternative propositions that emphasize targeted counterterrorism operations, and outline their own fallback option. (Washington Quarterly)

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. It is difficult to describe this plan in detail, as its various proponents would each naturally counsel different specifics. But it seems fair to say that the most popular alternative would emphasize the use of drones and commandos in the entire Pashtun south and east of Afghanistan, confining any remaining counterinsurgency efforts to Kabul, other parts of the Shomali plain near the capital, and points north and west (that is, mostly beyond the Hindu Kush mountains).2 It can be called Fortress Kabul.

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. Even more to the point, it is already highly troubling and counterproductive to U.S. interests and to NATO's prospects on the battlefield that many around the world appear to perceive the Obama administration as already giving serious consideration to a backup strategy like Plan B. There is a better way if a fallback option is needed.

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