Spencer Ackerman’s reporting on the role being played by Vice Admirals WilliamMcRaven and Robert Harward in the Afghanistan policy debate explains why Joe Biden wound up losing the argument over whether we should try to get by in Afghanistan with a “light footprint” and a narrow focus on counterterrorism. Basically, these are the guys who hold key special forces posts and would be largely responsible commanding counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. And they want to see such efforts embedded within a larger counterinsurgency strategy. Thus you end up with a fairly united front of relevant military players in favor of COIN approach and a substantial additional deployment of forces.
One thing I think this highlights is the limits of conducting this kind of debate more-or-less entirely within the four walls of the military. After all, why wouldn’t the special ops guys want to see as much resources as possible put into Afghanistan? At the end of the day to get a real debate going about the wisdom of going big you need someone in the room who represents a competing claim on the resources at hand. Does it make sense to sustain tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan at a cost of tens of billions of dollars a year in order to protect America from a group with “several hundred to several thousand members” and no heavy weapons? Well, I think that depends on what alternative uses of the resources are available. If the meeting also includes someone who needs to worry about the budget deficit, or about health care, or about child nutrition, or preventing bridges from collapsing then maybe this doesn’t look like such a great deal. But if it’s a meeting of uniformed military officers to talk about what’s the best way to handle the situation in Afghanistan, then even the guys who do counterterrorism still see the benefits of a broader approach.