One leading alternative to an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy for Afghanistan is some kind of more modest counterterrorism approach. Spencer Ackerman notes that one of Pakistan’s stated reasons for a new land offensive into Waziristan is that they say they’re running out of useful intelligence for airstrikes. This, to my view, definitely illustrates the shortcomings of a more modest approach — you’d have to actually be settling for more modest results.
Then again there’s a case to be made that this would make sense. Waziristan is inside Pakistan so you can see why the Pakistani government would have to have a maximalist take on anti-Pakistani radical groups operating there. Southern Afghanistan just doesn’t stand in the same relationship to the United States that Waziristan stands in relation to Pakistan. We can probably get away with accepting less than total victory there. At the same time, also unlike Pakistan, we’re an extremely wealthy country with tons of resources. So we can probably afford to engage in a more intensive effort in Afghanistan than the situation really warrants.
And the more I think about it, the more I think the crux of the matter with Afghanistan policy is that we’re actually operating well within our own margin of error. I wouldn’t want to say that it makes no difference whether Obama ultimately sides with McChrystal or with Biden, but the fact of the matter is that either approach is perfectly consistent with the country continuing to be secure and prosperous.