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Five questions for Obama on Afghan war

By Gordon M. Goldstein, Special to CNN
  • Gordon Goldstein's book on Vietnam War read by Obama administration officials
  • Goldstein says Obama must determine how to step up Afghan troop levels
  • He asks why earlier injection of 20,000-plus U.S. troops hasn't improved situation
  • Goldstein asks whether Gen. McChrystal is right in saying failure is imminent.

Editor's note: Gordon M. Goldstein is the author of "Lessons In Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and The Path to War in Vietnam," a book read by White House officials who deliberated on the request for more troops in Afghanistan. He has served as an international security adviser to the United Nations secretary-general and as a Wayland Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University.

New York (CNN) -- As a candidate and president, Barack Obama has distinguished himself as one of the most dynamic and enthralling orators in decades of American politics.

On issues ranging from race to health care to engagement with the Muslim world, he has repeatedly applied his rare gifts to both galvanize supporters and engage his critics and the undecided. Yet it will take more than an eloquent speech before the cadets of West Point to reverse his declining 35 percent approval rating for management of the war in Afghanistan, as his advisers no doubt hope.

Like President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, who tried to balance the demands of his nascent Vietnam policy with a highly ambitious domestic agenda, President Obama confronts a tough series of tests, beginning with his Tuesday night address.

Even more critical than moving the political needle, however, is the imperative of launching a frontal assault on the unanswered strategic questions about Afghanistan that continue to divide the military, his senior counselors and the country at large.

In response to this challenge, Mr. Obama must address the nation not so much as the president he has been but rather as the commander in chief he intends to become, as he finally claims decisive control of a treacherous and uncertain foreign intervention.

Five core questions, in particular, will determine the substantive criteria by which the necessity and viability of his anticipated 30,000 troop escalation in Afghanistan will be evaluated.

Why is the current strategy encountering distress?

Late last March, President Obama announced a "comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan," which eventually increased American forces by 21,000 soldiers, expanded their counterinsurgency mission and liberalized rules of engagement.

Yet over the past eight months the security situation in Afghanistan has eroded and America has suffered its worst casualties since the war was launched in 2001. Why has a more robust strategy and greater resources correlated with a faltering mission? How can Mr. Obama ensure that more manpower applied along a similar course will produce a different outcome?

Is failure imminent?

In his military assessment of August 30, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the Afghan theater commander, predicted that without more troops the American effort "will likely result in failure" within a year. Is his prediction of collapse accurate? Is the Taliban on the precipice of winning control of the country? Or is their insurgency more concentrated in southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar, as most reports suggest?

If so, do Taliban advances there require new troop deployments? Or could the United States do more to leverage its current 10 to one advantage of roughly 250,000 combined American, allied and Afghan forces against a Taliban force projected to be no larger than 25,000?

Which general is right?

In the winter of 1965 Gen. Max Taylor, previously a proponent of deploying ground combat forces to South Vietnam, served as the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. He pleaded for the rejection of Gen. William Westmoreland's proposed new mission for American forces. Taylor warned that Saigon, if supported by new U.S. combat deployments, would grow dependent on American protection and only expand its demands for more troops.

"If Danang needs better protection, so do Bien Hoa, Ton Son Nhut, Nha Trang and other key areas," he predicted. "Once it becomes evident that we are willing to assume such new responsibilities, one may be sure [Saigon] will seek to unload other ground force tasks upon us."

Summarizing the failure of other great powers, such as France, to pacify Vietnam, Taylor concluded: "When I view this array of difficulties I am convinced that we should adhere to our past policy of keeping our ground forces out of a direct counterinsurgency role."

Today a comparable drama is unfolding as Ambassador Karl Eikenberry -- the former theater commander in Afghanistan who is now our top diplomat in Kabul -- has reportedly opposed a new counterinsurgency mission because it will enhance dependence on U.S. military protection and lead to renewed requests for additional deployments.

In 1965, Taylor was right about the South Vietnamese regime. In 2009 is Ambassador Eikenberry, the general turned diplomat, right about the risks of propping up the regime of President Hamid Karzai? Which of Obama's generals -- McChrystal or his predecessor -- has the best insight into the necessity and risks of escalation?

Is counterinsurgency and population protection a viable mission?

McChrystal called for the application of a "classic" counterinsurgency and population protection strategy in Afghanistan. But is that a viable mission?

Great powers have historically succeeded in such wars only about 25 percent of the time. In those rare cases when the strategy has succeeded, it always correlates with a legitimate partner government, a condition we clearly lack in Afghanistan, perhaps indefinitely.

As they are exposed to far greater risks, how will U.S. forces neutralize the tactics of "asymmetric warfare," including an escalation in suicide bombings, which have grown from about 10 in 2005 to roughly 150 in 2008, as well as even more prevalent attacks with so-called improvised explosive devices, which have ballooned from 782 in 2005 to more than 3,200 last year?

How will Obama avoid Lyndon Johnson's predicament?

In July 1965, following a superficial debate of military strategy by his war council, LBJ approved Gen. Westmoreland's proposal for a combined force of 44 battalions in South Vietnam. It was just one point on a continuum of incremental troop requests received and approved by Johnson for the remainder of his presidency. Can President Obama protect himself from being presented with a similar predicament of incremental requests for more forces?

It has been reported that troop increases approved by President Obama will be deployed in phases and that his new strategy emphasizes an eventual strategic exit for American troops linked to the transfer of security operations to Afghan soldiers.

One plan recently described in the press calls for an accelerated timeline to build the size of the Afghan army to about 134,000 troops by next October, four years ahead of schedule. This will require recruiting 5,000 troops a month and dramatically reducing attrition and desertion.

Isn't the achievement of that goal among the most crucial priorities of President Obama's war plan? U.S. success at building a viable Afghan security force will define the plausibility of an American exit strategy. Without it, Afghanistan could truly become the ruinous quagmire that President Obama is so determined to avoid.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gordon M. Goldstein.

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