The Washington Post runs a question by five eminences: How many troops for Afghanistan? What’s disturbing is that the first two answers the paper presents don’t address the question at all, but instead address the politics of a second additional troop deployment this year. A reader can be excused for coming away from those two answers thinking the question is in fact settled, which undermines the premise of the feature. What’s more, the question can’t be answered on the Post‘s terms. I can’t tell you how many troops are needed for Afghanistan without addressing the dual questions of why we need troops in Afghanistan at all, and what we should do with them if we decide we need them.

Dennis Kucinich and Meghan O’Sullivan come the closest to addressing those questions. Kucinich, as will surprise no one, says we don’t need troops in Afghanistan — well, actually, he gives a rambling answer that points in the direction of we-don’t-need-troops-in-Afghanistan, but decide for yourself. More surprisingly, Meghan O’Sullivan, one of the few reality-based members of the Bush national security team when it came to Iraq, gives an equivocal meta-answer. But I like this point of hers:

Washington may legitimately feel it cannot meet a request for more troops because of other global commitments. In that case, McChrystal should ask the administration to revisit its strategic guidance and decide what it can accept not being done in Afghanistan. It is unfair to look to those in the field to close the gap between ends and means if Washington won’t.

In fact, the Obama administration should do that anyway, even if McChrystal asks for more troops and Obama grants the request. It should also be noted that O’Sullivan was, pre-Doug Lute, deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, so she bears a measure of responsibility for the deterioration in the war’s fortunes.

By the way, I’m not saying that every piece needs to address first-order questions about the war. I can be fairly criticized for not doing so in my last piece. But it makes little sense to structure a debate on troop sizes for Afghanistan without first giving a framework for evaluating the question and then not even addressing the question as posed.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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