President Obama’s advisers are coalescing around a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers, administration officials said Tuesday, describing an approach that would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability.
Mr. Obama has yet to make a decision, but as officials described it, the debate is no longer over whether to send additional troops but how many more will be needed to guard the most vital parts of the country. The question of how much of the country should fall under direct protection of American and NATO forces will be central to deciding how many troops Mr. Obama will dispatch.
At the moment, the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, officials said. The first of any new troops sent to Afghanistan would be assigned to secure Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, which is seen as a center of gravity in pushing back insurgent advances.
But military planners also are pressing for enough troops to safeguard major agricultural areas, like the hotly contested Helmand River valley, as well as regional highways essential to the economy — tasks that would require significantly more reinforcements beyond the 21,000 deployed by Mr. Obama earlier this year.
One administration official said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has briefed Mr. Obama’s advisers on how he would deploy any new troops under the approach being considered by the White House. The first two additional combat brigades would go south, including one to Kandahar, while a third would be sent to eastern Afghanistan and a fourth would be used flexibly across the nation, said the official, who like others insisted on anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
No free reign for insurgents
Administration and military officials emphasized that the strategy will include other elements, like accelerated training of Afghan troops, expanded economic development and reconciliation with less radical members of the Taliban. But such a strategy would be open to complaints that American and allied forces were in effect giving insurgents free reign across large swaths of the nation, allowing the Taliban to establish mini-states complete with training camps that could be used by Al Qaeda.
“We are not talking about surrendering the rest of the country to the Taliban,” a senior administration official said.
Military officers said that they would maintain pressure on insurgents in remote regions by using surveillance drones and reports from people in the field to find pockets of Taliban fighters and guide attacks, in particular by Special Operations Forces. But a range of officials made the case that many insurgents fighting Americans in distant locations are motivated not by jihadist ideology but by local grievances and therefore are not much threat either to the United States or the Kabul government.
At the heart of this strategy is the conclusion that the United States cannot completely eradicate the insurgency in a nation where the Taliban is an indigenous force — nor does it need to in order to protect American national security. Instead, the focus would be on preventing Al Qaeda from returning in force while containing and weakening the Taliban long enough to build Afghan security forces that would eventually take over the mission.
In effect, the approach blends ideas advanced by General McChrystal and by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., seen as opposite poles in the internal debate. General McChrystal has sought at least another 40,000 troops for a counterinsurgency strategy aimed at protecting Afghan civilians so they will support the central government. Mr. Biden has opposed a buildup on the grounds that a bigger military footprint could be counterproductive and that fighting Al Qaeda in Pakistan should be the main priority.
‘Constant intimidation and corruption’
A strategy of protecting major Afghan population centers would be “McChrystal for the city, Biden for the country,” as one administration official put it. Officials said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was playing a crucial role — balancing the case made by commanders and the skepticism of some civilians on Mr. Obama’s war council — as the debate entered its final days.
A senior military officer said the developing strategy adopts General McChrystal’s central tenet. “We are no longer thinking about just destroying the enemy in a conventional way,” the senior military officer said. “We must remove the main pressure that civilians live under, which is the constant intimidation and corruption and direct threat from the insurgency.”
The officer said General McChrystal wants the most expansive definition of population centers to include fertile valleys and economic belts as well as major roadways — in particular the national ring road that is the central link for commerce — as well as four or five roadways linking Afghanistan eastward to Pakistan and westward to Iran.
Officials said no exact statistics were available for what percentage of the Afghan population would fall under a new population-centric policy.
Elements of the strategy already are being executed. Over the past month, General McChrystal has closed a half-dozen isolated military outposts in towns like Wanat, where American troops were attacked, and nine killed, in a vicious firefight in July 2008. The decision to close these bases has allowed General McChrystal to shift nearly 1,000 troops to other missions.
Lessons of Iraq
Although historical analogies are imperfect, the strategy now being implemented can be viewed as rejecting arguments that individual villages have a strategic importance — a mistake of the Vietnam War — and instead builds on the lessons of the troop increase in Iraq, when large population areas received the most reinforcements.
Senator John F. Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has been working closely with the administration on Afghanistan, signaled the current thinking in a speech on Monday. “We don’t have to control every hamlet and village, particularly when non-Pashtun sections of the country are already hostile to the Taliban,” he said.
One possible flashpoint in the administration debate centers on Helmand, a lightly populated farming area and Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. For years, insurgents controlled much of the province but Marines arrived in force this year to reinforce British troops.
Some administration officials are asking whether it makes sense for 20 percent of the foreign forces to be protecting 3 percent of the country’s population. Yet others point out that Helmand’s fertile valley makes it important to Afghanistan’s economy and it has become a major source of opium used to finance the insurgency.
Mr. Obama will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Friday, his seventh major session since beginning his review.
This report, "," originally appeared in the New York Times.