So far, though, COIN hasn't exactly delivered on its promises. Despite the addition of 21,000 troops in March, the Taliban have continued to make gains across Afghanistan, establishing control or significantly disrupting at least 40 percent of the country. According to McChrystal's own report, Taliban leaders "appoint shadow governors for most provinces," set up courts, levy taxes, conscript fighters and boast about providing "security against a corrupt government." What's more, U.S. casualties have skyrocketed: In the four months since McChrystal took over, 165 Americans have died in Afghanistan — nearly one-fifth of those killed during the entire war.
By late summer, some in the Obama administration began to have doubts about the efficacy of McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy — doubts that greatly increased in the wake of Afghanistan's disastrous presidential election in August. Hamid Karzai, Washington's hand-picked president, was accused of widespread fraud, including ballot-box stuffing and "ghost" polling stations. Without a credible Afghan government, COIN can't succeed, since its core idea is to build support for the Afghan government.
Even before the election fiasco, Obama had sent Jones, his national-security adviser, to Kabul to deliver a message to his military commander: The White House wouldn't look favorably on sending more soldiers to Afghanistan. If the Pentagon asked for more troops, Jones told McChrystal's top generals, the president would have "a Whisky Tango Foxtrot moment" — that is, What the fuck? According to The Washington Post, which reported the encounter, the generals present "seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get."
Not long after the Afghan elections, Obama began a top-to-bottom strategy review of the war. Among those who started to question the basic assumptions of McChrystal and his COIN allies were Jones, many of his colleagues on the National Security Council, and Vice President Biden. By contrast, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remained remarkably quiet during the assessment, seeming to defer to the White House when it came to challenging the Pentagon brass.
The issue has presented the most difficult political decision of Obama's presidency thus far. The White House knew that if Obama were to "fully resource" the military campaign, he would be going to war without his own political base, which has turned strongly against the Afghan war. For the first time since 2001, according to polls, a majority of Americans believe that the war in Afghanistan is "not worth fighting." Fifty-seven percent of independents and nearly three-quarters of Democrats oppose the war — and overall, only 26 percent of Americans support the idea of adding more troops. Indeed, if Obama were to escalate the war, his only allies would be the Pentagon, Congressional Republicans, an ultraconservative think tank called the Foreign Policy Initiative, whose supporters include Karl Rove, Sarah Palin and a passel of neoconservatives and former aides to George W. Bush.
On the other hand, rejecting McChrystal's demands for more troops would make Obama vulnerable to GOP accusations that he was embracing defeat, and give congressional Republicans another angle of attack during midterm elections next year. Even worse, the administration has to take into account the possibility of a terrorist attack, which would allow the GOP to put the blame on the White House. "All it would take is one terrorist attack, vaguely linked to Afghanistan, for the military and his opponents to pounce all over him," says Pillar.
Within the administration, Biden has emerged as the leading opponent of McChrystal's approach to never-ending war. "He's proposing that we stop doing large-scale counterinsurgency, that we rely on drones, U.S. Special Forces and other tools to combat Al Qaeda," says Stephen Biddle, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on McChrystal's advisory team. Biden's view, which has support among a significant number of officials and analysts in and out of government, is that rather than trying to defeat the Taliban, the United States ought to focus on targeting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups that want to strike at American targets.
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