A better strategy for Afghanistan

The Obama administration may finally be on the right track in its strategy for combating terrorism, as its new strategic doctrine has sworn off counter-insurgency in favor of a more targeted approach — one that we see already in effect as unmanned drones carry out strikes in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.

The new approach is contained in a 19-page document, the "National Strategy for Counterterrorism," which was outlined Wednesday by John O. Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism chief. Mr. Brennan said the U.S. plans to rely more heavily on clandestine operations specifically targeted at Al Qaeda and its affiliates rather than on massive ground forces occupying territory overseas.

Hitting Al-Qaeda "hard enough and often enough" with commando raids and drone strikes, Mr. Brennan suggested, would over time be sufficient to destroy the terrorist network, which he described as already "in its decline." The new strategic doctrine, he said, departs from earlier approaches by focusing on the groups that pose the greatest direct threat to the American homeland, rather than on trying to confront "every single terrorist organization in every corner of the world."

Given the uneven progress of the American effort in Afghanistan, it was frankly only a matter of time before the Obama administration came to the realization that the so-called counterinsurgency strategy it adopted in 2009 is both unsustainable and unaffordable. That strategy, which prompted Mr. Obama to dispatch a "surge" of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan 18 months ago, called for a massive U.S. occupation force to protect the civilian population while spending billions of dollars on schools, hospitals and roads in order to wean them away from the insurgents.

The biggest obstacle to such an approach was always Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who presides over a bureaucracy so riddled with corruption that it is seemingly incapable of providing either basic services or competent governance. Without a reliable partner in Kabul, the counterinsurgency strategy successfully employed in Iraq by Gen. David A. Petraeus, the top NATO commander in the region, was bound to fail.

Now we are seeing the limitations of our previous efforts at counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, where the security forces we've spent so many years funding and training seem utterly incapable of keeping the peace. This week's attack by fewer than a dozen heavily armed insurgents on what was considered the best fortified hotel in Kabul showed that despite official assurances to the contrary, it's unlikely that the Afghan army and will be able to fully shoulder responsibility for the country's security after NATO troops depart in 2014.

Eyewitness accounts of the attack on the Intercontinental Hotel hours after Mr. Brennan spoke suggest that Afghan police fled at the first appearance of the militants and may even have been complicit in the assault. Others reportedly refused orders to enter the hotel to confront the gunmen. In any case the attack, for which the Taliban later claimed credit, lasted nearly six hours and ended only after NATO troops in helicopter gunships arrived to kill the last group of insurgent holdouts on the hotel rooftop.

It's plain we can never remake Afghanistan into something resembling a Western democracy; what kind of government ultimately emerges there is something only Afghans can decide. Our interest is limited to ensuring that the country doesn't become a haven for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. The counterterrorism strategy outlined by the administration this week represents a realistic approach to the problem that can accomplish our goals in the region and wherever new threats arise at a price in blood and treasure that is far less than what we have been paying up to now.




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