In order to appropriately judge whatever updated Afghanistan plan emerges from the White House, there are a number of until now omitted questions that must be taken into account.
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In the last few weeks, most of the reporting on the president's updated plan for Afghanistan has often been, in my view, simplistic (the number of new troops) or silly (how often does Obama speak to McChrystal?). The first of these questions, while certainly relevant, is far from the only or even the most important factor. The second question is largely irrelevant. As long as the president gets good advice, including accurate assessments of on-the-ground conditions, it doesn't matter who provides it.

Unfortunately, some vital questions and distinctions have tended to be overlooked. In order to appropriately judge whatever updated Afghanistan plan emerges, omitted questions must be taken into account. Here are a few of them:

Goals vs. Strategy vs. Tactics

Goals define what we want to have happen in Afghanistan. Tactics are the methods employed by military forces (and, increasingly, their civilian counterparts) on a day-to-day basis. Strategy sequences and prioritizes tactical engagements so that we might attain our goals. The number of additional troops we deploy is contingent on goals and a strategy - it's not step one. That being said, goals and strategy have to be chosen with resource limitations in mind, or else they will fail.

It seems that there is general agreement on what our goals are for Afghanistan. It would be best if Afghanistan were not used to plan and resource attacks against us. Similarly, we have an interest in minimizing the external stresses - from refugees or terrorists - placed on Pakistan from its western neighbor.

The strategy to achieve these goals has been conflated with the tactics employed on the ground. Counterinsurgency and counterterrorism are neat labels, but they tend to fall through the cracks between strategy and tactics. Both might be usefully employed to achieve our goals in different areas. For example, we might choose to employ counterinsurgency tactics in densely populated areas and reinforce these military guidelines with concentrated development aid and civilian assistance. Simultaneously, we might use limited raids and airstrikes - counterterrorism tactics - to limit the presence of Al Qaeda and its allies in areas outside Afghan government control.

The Key Variables

There are a number of variables which have strong effects on the likely effectiveness of various strategies. One important variable is the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government. If the government is hopelessly corrupt, fraudulently-elected, and generally wretched, counterinsurgency tactics designed to bolster its legitimacy are not likely to succeed without massive outside intervention. If, on the other hand, the upcoming runoff election is less fraudulent, the most corrupt officials are publicly removed, and government performance begins to improve, counterinsurgency could be more appropriate.

The second key variable is the character of the relationship between Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Smart people have assessed it in very different ways: Peter Bergen thinks it's been growing closer while Stephen Walt points out some reasons why the Afghan Taliban might not accept the presence of Al Qaeda a second time. The amazing story of David Rohde's capture, detention, and escape from a particularly nasty Taliban faction is informative but inconclusive: the Taliban foot soldiers probably hate America enough to accept the presence of Al Qaeda, but take orders from commanders whose broader interests might rule out such a relationship. Few outside analysts (myself included) are knowledgeable enough to assess this relationship with any certainty.

The Distractions

Some assertions are essentially distractions that should be ignored. One is that we should be focusing more on poppy farming and smuggling. Yes, opium smuggling is bad. Yes, the production, trafficking, consumption of heroin in Afghanistan and elsewhere is harmful. But, based on recent press reports, drugs are not the main source of funding of the Afghan insurgency. Drug eradication efforts alienates the population without affecting output, which reached an all-time high (no pun intended) in 2007 and declined only slightly from that high in 2008. Even if we could control all of Afghanistan's borders, which we can't, stemming the infiltration routes of militants, not drug smugglers, would be the focus. Poppy production is likely to fall where counterinsurgency efforts are successful (because of increased security, improved infrastructure, and more effective governance - keys to COIN success), and counterterrorist tactics will likely be focused on militants, not traffickers. The drugs argument is largely a distraction.

The other assertion, one that is particularly infuriating, is about whether insurgents will be "emboldened" if we take certain actions. If they are fighting us, is their baseline level of boldness not already pretty high? The argument that the motivations of your average rank-and-file religious fanatic are strongly dependent on U.S. policy is ludicrous. The idea that a deliberative policy process emboldens insurgents is similarly bizarre (again, see the Rohde tales for a glimpse into the mindset of a Taliban foot soldier). NATO and U.S. forces are continuing to fight as changes are debated - a policy review does not turn Afghanistan into the Islamic extremist version of Spring Break Cancun. And, as Walt points out, clarifying that U.S. support is not unconditional can have positive effects.

The Point

This is not a complete list of important factors. But I hope (though do not by any means expect) that items on it, and others, will be taken into account when the public judges the president's Afghanistan plan. Troop numbers are important, but are only one element of a holistic strategy. And a holistic strategy, not some arbitrary number of reinforcements, gives the best chance of success in Afghanistan.

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