A skeptical Biden’s role

WASHINGTON — With President Obama finally ready to announce his decision about Afghanistan, it’s a good time to examine the role played by Vice President Joe Biden, who emerged during the policy review as the administration’s in-house skeptic — the “questioner in chief,” as one insider puts it.

Biden has been the point man in challenging some premises of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy, according to civilian and military officials involved in the review. He was dubious about committing more troops when the administration announced its initial strategy in March, and over the months his doubts came to be shared, increasingly, by the president.

Biden’s questions sometimes peeved advocates of the military buildup — one official describes a process of discussion that resembled bashing a pinata — and they added weeks of delay. But administration officials argue that the review, protracted and painful as it has been, will produce an Afghanistan policy that can better withstand public scrutiny.

President Obama is still working on the final details, and one participant describes the narrow balance as “51/49.” Officials predict that he will send some additional troops to secure Afghanistan’s population centers, though probably not the full 40,000 McChrystal requested. Obama’s support for the mission will be hedged and time-limited, as Biden has urged.

Biden won his case against an open-ended commitment to a policy that, as even its strongest advocates concede, may not work. Instead, the president appears to have embraced Biden’s demand for a “proof of concept” to test the strategy in the populated regions where the U.S. added troops this year. The time limit for this experimentation isn’t clear yet, but it’s likely to be less than the three to five years U.S. commanders think is needed.

Obama is said to be confident that the military can succeed in the “clear and hold” part of the strategy, but is less certain about the subsequent “build and transfer” phase, where the Afghans take control of cleared areas. That’s where Obama will apply his benchmarks and testing: Can the U.S. mount a “civilian surge” of aid workers? Can President Hamid Karzai curb corruption and improve governance? Can Afghan security forces expand rapidly enough to take over responsibility?

U.S. military commanders don’t disagree with the need to test the counterinsurgency strategy and see what works. They’re doing plenty of experimentation already — organizing governance and development projects, and bolstering Afghan tribal forces. It was this kind of trial-and-error approach that worked in Iraq, commanders note, but only when it was coupled with sufficient military power. What has frustrated the military has been the political hesitation and uncertainty in Washington at a time they’re fighting a war.

Biden and the other skeptics are said to have focused on some key assumptions in McChrystal’s strategy that, on examination, they found to be weak:

n The relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida. Military strategists had argued that gains for the former would lead to a resurgence by the latter. But the skeptics argued that most Taliban commanders, while opposing U.S. troops, don’t want to join al-Qaida’s global jihad.

n The relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Proponents of a troop surge contended that it would help Pakistan battle its own Taliban insurgency. But critics cautioned that the evidence was mixed. While the Pakistanis certainly don’t want the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, they’re also worried that more American troops next door would drive Taliban fighters back into Pakistan.

n The feasibility of creating a 400,000-man Afghan army and police force. McChrystal’s plan proposed to roughly double the Afghan security forces. But the skeptics argued that the forecasts for recruitment and attrition were unrealistic, and they seem to have convinced Obama. The final strategy probably won’t make a specific force projection.

Biden and the other doubters have warned against an ever-widening cycle of escalation in Afghanistan. What they want instead is for the military to consolidate its forces where they’re already deployed — and demonstrate that the strategy can work. Even Biden seems to accept that this means some increase in troops, since the force now isn’t sufficient to consolidate its hold.

We’ll find out next week how Obama has decided to marry the battle plan of his commanders with the exit strategy of his vice president. Straddling “yes” and “no” is never a good idea. But if the long review produces a sharper and more realistic plan, then it will have been worthwhile. Obama’s obligation is to give the military enough resources to succeed at the mission he assigns them.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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