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How Many Stories Like This Is The Obama Administration Willing To See?

I say this not as a normative judgment about strategy — let me say that from the outset. But with the caveat that the Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy appears to be rather fluid in its development, one emerging contour — at least as of Monday– is an effort by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to reorient military efforts around population centers. And that a decision that carries with it the consequence of not contesting less-populated areas. A debate is taking place as to how many population centers need to be protected in order to ensure the viability of the government. I have heard that one contention is as few as three; and I believe it’s been reported that another is as many as twelve.

Whatever the number, the effort pretty much guarantees more stories like this one from the Christian Science Monitor:

The Taliban’s growing presence in northern Afghanistan, near the US and NATO supply routes from the north, poses new challenges for the international forces, which until now have had a small contingent of 520 Swedish and Finnish troops to keep watch over Balkh and three other provinces.

In the first 10 months of this year, there have been 82 significant combat incidents in Balkh, more than triple the number in 2008, and the insurgency may be even more potent next year.

“In areas where they are hiding right now, we won’t have any control during the winter,” said Col. Olof Granander, a commander of Swedish forces in Balkh. “And there is a risk they will try to build up their capacity, and they will be tougher to fight during the upcoming spring and summer.”

I am not passing any judgment on the wisdom of the population-center-centric strategy. We’ve seen alternatives fail and I want to see more evidence before I feel qualified to make an assessment. I imagine McChrystal will face questions about stories like the one above at his much-anticipated congressional testimony. But it seems fair to presume that as areas of lower population density grow less contested, we’ll see stories like this proliferate. And is that something the Obama administration is prepared to countenance? On the surface of it, it really does look like failure, even if it’s a defensible or even wise proposition.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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