Counterinsurgency or Counterterroism? U.S. Says Both

(AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
The White House sent a powerful message this morning to the Afghan President Hamid Karzai: He'll get no extra U.S. troops, until he proves his government is credible.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel says President Barack Obama must be convinced he's got a legitimate partner in Kabul.

"It would be reckless to make a decision on U.S. troop level," Emanuel said on CNN's "State of the Union," "if, in fact, you haven't done a thorough analysis of whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the U.S troops would create and become a true partner in governing the Afghan country."

That's a message that will reverberate in Kabul, where U.S. diplomats have been urging incumbent President Karzai to somehow legitimize an election widely believed to be fraudulent, by choosing one of two options – a runoff election between the two top candidates Karzai, and his nearest challenger Abdullah Abdullah, or a negotiation between those candidates, Emanuel said.

That Sunday morning politicking won praise from Brooking Institution's Michael O'Hanlon.

"I think a little Chicago politics could be just what this situation needs," he said, to pressure President Karzai to prove to the Americans – and more importantly to Afghan citizens – that his government is credible.

Otherwise, O'Hanlon says, the U.S. faces repeating the mistakes of Vietnam, where it poured in more troops, but had no credible partner in the South Vietnamese government to back it up.

He says that President Obama needs to be able to point to some sort of positive sign from the Karzai government before he tells the American people he plans to "double-down and send more troops."

But critics across the political spectrum warn this could put off an Obama decision on the Afghan war strategy until as late as January. White House officials are debating that strategy before they decide whether to agree to a request from top commander General Stanley McChrystal to send at least 40,000 more U.S. troops, to join the 68,000 already committed to the fight (though not all of them are yet on the ground there). Special Report: Afghanistan

"This formulation is a prescription for delay." said CBS News consultant Juan Zarate, a top counter-terrorism official with the Bush administration. "The field general and our troops – not to mention our friends and enemies – will see delay and dithering, which is risky for us."

Leading Republicans agree. "At some point, deliberation begins to look more like indecisiveness, which then becomes a way of emboldening our enemies, and causing our allies to question our resolve," Sen. John Cornyn .

But Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry, D-Mass, speaking on a visit from Kabul, .

"I don't see how President Obama can make a decision about the committing of our additional forces or even the further fulfillment of our mission that's here today without an adequate government in place or knowledge about what that government's going to be," Kerry said on "Face the Nation." "So there's some very fundamental questions that have to be answered about the status of the Afghan government. I think this is a moment for President Karzai to frankly to step up."

There've been five war cabinet meetings so far, and there will be more this week, and next.

The main debate there has been framed by the media as Gen. McChrystal's strategy of counterinsurgency, against counterterrorism.

Emphasizing counterinsurgency, the current strategy, would mean committing those tens of thousands of extra U.S. troops to protect more Afghans across that vast country from Taliban insurgents. They'd do the job, until enough Afghans are trained to do it.

Focusing more on counterterrorism would likely mean keeping troop numbers roughly level, but boosting special operating forces' missions to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Kerry said one won't work, without the other.

"I do not believe that a counterterrorism strategy all by itself without a sufficient level of counterinsurgency will work, because if you don't have a presence on the ground that's effective it's almost impossible to collect the kind of intelligence that you need to be equally effective in your counterterrorism," he said. But he said changes do have to be made in the current counterinsurgency strategy.

A top official in the war cabinet meetings agrees, and says the media's portrayal of a contentious face-off between the counterinsurgent versus the counterterrorist strategies is overblown. He says most in the room think parts of both are needed.

The main question that remains is whether to send more U.S. troops to send to bridge the security gap, until enough Afghans are trained to do it for themselves – and how to make sure the Karzai administration makes good on their end of the deal, delivering a fair election result, and good governance to go with that security.