October 26, 2009 | The Weekly Standard

Unfortunately, Failure Is an Option

By Reuel Marc Gerecht and Lawrence B. Lindsey

One of the standard accoutrements of the decision making process in the West Wing is the three-option “decision memorandum.” The memo itself is drafted by the national security adviser, the National Economic Council director, or the assistant to the president for domestic policy, depending on the issue. It then goes through “clearance” to make sure it is acceptable to each of the president's key advisers. Typically, these advisers cluster around a consensus approach, but there are outliers; some favor doing a bit more than the consensus, some a bit less. Hence, three options: Option A is the “go all out” plan or “do too much” approach; Option C is the “don't do it” or “do too little” approach; while Option B is the safe consensus that the bulk of the staff prefers, and the one the president usually picks.

Given the leaks coming out of the White House on Afghanistan, decision making in the Obama administration appears little different from that under other presidents. Aides even talk on the record about “doing the middle option,” and sympathetic outsiders like Richard Haas, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, write opinion pieces extolling the virtues of some moderate approach. “Afghanistan is important, but not that important” is a reasonable paraphrase of Haas's argument.

Picking the proverbial Option B is a standard result of most models of organizational behavior, and the White House is no exception. But by its very nature Option B defines a problem as being too serious to ignore and thereby requiring resources, yet commits fewer resources than would guarantee success. This increases the odds of failure and of having to revisit the issue at a later date. In the case now before us, President Obama has already rejected Option C, the view that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires” and therefore an imprudent place in which to invest American lives. But by hesitating to embrace General Stanley McChrystal's plan for an additional 40,000 troops–Option A–he is implicitly selecting an option that will likely prove more costly in the long run in both lives and treasure.

After Osama bin Laden's attack on the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, President Clinton was presented three options for how to respond. Option A, a full-scale military assault on al Qaeda and the Taliban, was not seriously considered. The administration was not bellicose. The CIA and the State Department didn't want to believe that bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had become religiously and ideologically inseparable. Diplomacy with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan was still the preferred means of neutralizing al Qaeda. Option C, ignoring the attack as President Clinton had ignored the Iranian-backed bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, was also dismissed. Choosing Option B, Clinton unleashed cruise missiles against rock-hut training camps in Khost and bombed a suspected weapons-of-mass-destruction facility in Sudan linked to both al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. The adverse reaction to the bombings in Europe and the United States inclined President Clinton to choose, and later George W. Bush to stick with, Option C after al Qaeda nearly sank the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000.

Most ironically, the current administration's decision making strategy carries an eerie resemblance to that which led Bush to Option B in Iraq in the early years of the U.S. intervention. Until the surge of 2007, President Bush opted for moderation in the war. Before hostilities commenced, Options A, B, and C contended for his attention. The maximalists wanted a replay of the Powell Doctrine: Option A was no war unless we had more troops from Europe and Asia deployed to the Middle East, with allies, especially the Turks, given their strategic position for resupply, all lined up. The minimalists' Option C would have kept some pressure on Saddam by maintaining 140,000 troops in the region, but would have avoided an invasion and let the United Nations continue its seemingly endless round of inspections while the clock ticked.

Into this mix came Plan B–advanced by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and others: We could topple Saddam Hussein without overwhelming force, using just the number of troops already available. The plan showed action, but spared the president and the Pentagon the kind of full-scale personnel and budgetary commitment that might have created political waves. And Rumsfeld was right about the punch required to topple Saddam. The deed was done with minimum casualties and in a time frame–six weeks–that was less than expected. In the late spring and summer of 2003, Rumsfeld's approach was hailed as a success–barring the looters' rampage in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam–even by those (virtually everyone on all sides of the issue) who came to criticize him later.

With the advantage of hindsight, it's obvious that Option B was the wrong choice. We did not have sufficient troops to keep the peace and convince the Baathists and the Arab Sunni community that they had permanently lost power. The total victory promised by Option A, which would have cost us much more to launch, could well have prevented the Sunni insurgency, the Shiite counterattack, and the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis. The enormous loss of American prestige overseas that began when Iraq went south, the palpable disarray and ennui that consumed the Bush White House, and the real nastiness that defined the American public square during Bush's second term all likely could have been averted. Only Bush's decision to launch a surge coupled with a much more intelligent counterinsurgency strategy saved Iraq from the abyss and the United States from a complete strategic rout in the Middle East.

It's a reasonable guess that President Obama today would prefer the Option B approach reportedly advanced by his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and the vice president. Otherwise, he would have stuck with the “comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan” he announced in March, after a “careful review” of all options. That first review led to the appointment of General Stanley McChrystal and ultimately his recommendation for more troops. The president may yet have to follow McChrystal's advice, particularly if Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who seems to have signaled his agreement with McChrystal, becomes more outspoken. A presidential disagreement with the entire chain of command can mean real political trouble. But Option B still looms, undoubtedly tempting the president with the promise of cost savings and the possibility that one doesn't really have to be “all in” in war.

The political realities in Afghanistan have changed little since March. The fraud-filled presidential election of Hamid Karzai was hardly a shocker–even the Central Intelligence Agency, whose powers of prognostication on Afghanistan haven't been particularly acute, would have predicted that Karzai and his allies would cheat. This is hardly a legitimate reason for delaying a military decision. If it had been, certainly Ambassador Richard Holbrooke would have loudly and publicly told President Karzai that sticking to democratic norms was critical to continued American support for his government. Nor have the opponents of U.S. involvement in the region ever credited the relative success of Iraqi democracy as a reason why the surge succeeded in that country.

What has changed since the Obama administration's “comprehensive strategy” was announced in March is Washington politics. McChrystal's plan is now not Option B–as one would expect the recommendation of the president's hand-picked general to be. That has become Option A because a strong constituency for Option C has emerged. Senator Robert Byrd laid out the don't-do-it position in a rare recent appearance on the Senate floor. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed similar feelings, repeatedly. In the past, a firm rhetorical commitment to the war in Afghanistan was always politically attractive to those who opposed our very real struggle in Iraq. But Afghanistan is decidedly less attractive now that it involves a real force commitment, real casualties, and real budgetary expenditures. And Plan C also has supporters on the right, most notably George Will. With the anti-nation-building, democracy-skeptical right now aligned with the antiwar, bigger-welfare-state left, the president has been forced into a box that he could not have imagined when he campaigned for the presidency on a promise to shift resources from Iraq to Afghanistan.

When one considers the likely arguments in the “decision memorandum” it is not hard to see why the White House staff are inclined toward Option B. The McChrystal strategy of adding 40,000 troops, which is itself scaled down from an option asking for an additional 80,000 troops, will put real strain on both military manpower and the budget. Commandants of both the Army and Marines recently opined that they could produce only 30,000 additional personnel in the near term. Unmentioned in most press reports is the likely budgetary impact of the McChrystal option. A force of roughly 105,000 troops in Afghanistan would carry about the same financial commitment as the peak 160,000 force we had in Iraq. Afghanistan is both a more difficult place to supply and a more difficult place in which to move forces. Surrounded by Pakistan to the south and east, Iran to the west, and the former Soviet Union to the north, it increasingly requires air transport for U.S. and allied forces. The critical resupply line through Pakistan is not secure, and the Pentagon has been trying mightily to find alternative land routes that could reduce costs. All of these scenarios require logistical support from Russia and at least one of the “stans” to the north. Earlier this year the Russians applied pressure to make us up the ante to maintain our Central Asian resupply lines. At any time, Moscow can do so again.

Inside Afghanistan, effective full-scale operations would require a fleet of helicopters at least as large as that used in Vietnam. This would involve both an up-front procurement expense and higher operational costs than in Iraq where ground transportation is relatively easy. At a minimum, the McChrystal plan would cost in the range of $8 billion to $10 billion a month, roughly twice what is now being expended. Throw in additional procurement in the $20 billion to $30 billion range over the next three years, and it becomes clear that the Afghanistan commitment would involve expenditures on the order of what Iraq has been costing. And this would come at a time when savings from a wind down of Iraqi operations are yet to materialize. The Afghanization of the war, moreover, would likely prove even more expensive than the reconstruction and retraining of the Iraqi Army since there actually was the tradition of an Iraqi Army, while in Afghanistan we are constructing a force out of what historically were fragmented and fratricidal militias.

So a full-scale operation in Afghanistan will require an additional budgetary commitment similar to what Iraq has ended up costing–not the lesser commitment that the Bush administration first assumed. But the economic and budgetary environment in which that commitment is being made is much worse now. President Bush faced a budget deficit that was roughly 5 percent of GDP and falling rapidly. Obama faces a budget deficit of 10 percent of GDP and likely to remain in the 7 percent to 8 percent of GDP range as far as the eye can see. Adding another roughly 0.6 percent or 0.7 percent of GDP to the annual deficit was not a serious risk in 2003. Today, it is potentially the straw that breaks the camel's back.

On the other hand, Option C is hardly attractive either. The issue is not whether Afghanistan is the proverbial graveyard of empires. None of the nations that has engaged in Afghanistan has done so because of the particular real estate it occupies. Each has done so because of the neighborhood in which the real estate sits. The British were in Afghanistan because of India. The Russians were in Afghanistan because Leonid Brezhnev really believed in the slippery slope–that Communist regimes, no matter how lame, should not fall, especially to neighboring third-world Islamic guerrillas.

A dyed-in-the-wool optimist might call Afghanistan a strategic asset. That would, however, take a level of salesmanship in Washington that even the perkiest real estate agent might have difficulty mustering. A more truthful real estate agent might say that, absent an American presence there, the “wrong type” of people might own the place, and if they did, “there goes the neighborhood.”

As the military strategist Stephen Biddle and the counterterrorism analyst Peter Bergen trenchantly pointed out in recent essays in the New Republic, the various scenarios envisioning fewer U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a greater reliance on Afghan forces, more focus on Pakistan, an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy, and a modus vivendi with the supposedly “good” Taliban against the pro-al Qaeda “bad” Taliban make no sense whatsoever. Only more U.S. troops offer the possibility of success against the Taliban, who have become the cutting-edge of al Qaeda in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Without more U.S. troops, it's only a matter of time–probably not much time–before the Taliban have effective control of as much territory as when bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996.

Without a U.S. surge, the odds of the Pakistani Army and civilian elite remaining firm in a gut-wrenching fight against their own deeply embedded Islamic radicalism are poor. And without more troops, the United States is looking at the serious possibility that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will in any meaningful way cease to exist. The Europeans will abandon Afghanistan if we don't go “all in”; they are on the verge of quitting now. It's become chic in leftwing European circles to say that the transatlantic alliance has no relevance in a post-Cold War world. The reality of this, if Afghanistan descends into civil war and the Americans and Europeans retreat into their welfare states, may not be pretty. “Who lost Afghanistan?” will define the transatlantic conversation. The last time we saw a cash-strapped self-centered isolationist Europe and a cash-strapped self-centered isolationist United States was the 1930s.

Option C, then, at bottom amounts to an acceptance that the U.S. intervention on the ground in Afghanistan is doomed. All that is left is to manage an exit strategy so as to least weaken the American position in the world.

Enveloping all three options, of course, is uncertainty–the same uncertainty that President Bush faced when he decided to depose Saddam Hussein. There is no hard-and-fast progression of events that is bound to flow from a gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, though the sheer magnitude of unattractive possibilities that might well unfold is sobering. Obama confronts the curse that belongs to presidents: a choice between options whose outcomes cannot be foreknown.

If there were only two options before the president–withdrawing from Afghanistan and writing an annual check of $100 billion to guarantee that Pakistan would stay on a reasonably pro-Western path and the Taliban would not take over Kabul–it is quite likely that the president, indeed any president, would write the check. Despite the economic risks in the current budget environment, a few tenths of a percent of GDP is really a bargain for eliminating the possibilities of nuclear armed Islamic terrorists, a destabilized or radicalized Pakistan, and a potential nuclear exchange on the Indian subcontinent.

But reality is not so simple. Writing the check will involve the loss of American lives. Perhaps more important, it cannot guarantee what will happen in Pakistan or in Iran. It is in this context that Option B becomes attractive. On the one hand there is a significant chance of potentially catastrophic consequences from a withdrawal. On the other hand, there is the lack of assurance that even a very costly intervention will produce acceptable results. The crafters of Option B therefore offer lower costs and, they claim, a reasonable chance of success. Relative to Option A's “all in,” the lower costs are a certainty, but the reduction in the possibility of ultimate success is intangible–assuming the White House downplays General McChrystal's warning that “continued underresourcing will likely cause failure.” Relative to Option C, the appearance of doing something to stop a bad outcome earns immediate praise for prudence and deliberation, and does not foreclose the possibility of future course corrections.

What will not be mentioned in the decision memorandum is that, historically speaking, Option B has almost never succeeded. It almost always morphs into some version of either Option A or Option C. Consider Iraq. The failure of 2004-07, as the insurgency took off, led to the surge, after the president and his administration had paid a huge political price. President Johnson tried calibrating the Vietnam war, even deciding which targets in North Vietnam would be hit. Option B tends not to work because the more moderate effort it contemplates takes more time. The American people are generally willing to go to war and make the sacrifices necessary where there is a clear and certain objective that involves protecting the homeland. Option B by its very nature obfuscates. As time drags on, support for the effort flags, and the president must either ramp up operations to have a chance of success or back away entirely from the effort.

President Obama and his staff are doing their best to think through their options. Bush and his staff, Kennedy and Johnson and their best-and-brightest subordinates, did the same. Establishment opinion, often articulated most forcefully by former West Wing staffers themselves, will defend the process and the decision. And given the remoteness and frustrating strangeness of Afghanistan, Option B is an alluring choice. But we've been down this road before. Both history and organizational behavior tell us B is not the best option. It almost certainly is not the final strategy the nation will settle on. But for Barack Obama and his war-weary congressional allies, appreciation of the painful irony may come too late..

Lawrence B. Lindsey served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush White Houses and at the Federal Reserve during the Clinton administration. His most recent book is What a President Should Know .  .  . but Most Learn Too Late. Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.