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As Leadership Changes, So Could Afghanistan Strategy

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Gen. David Petraeus stepped down as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan on Monday and handed control of the war over to Marine Corps Gen. John Allen. Petraeus is leaving to become head of the CIA at the end of the summer.

A year ago, President Obama asked Petraeus to take charge in Afghanistan and jump start the counterinsurgency operation there. Now, there’s a question of whether Monday’s change in command also signals a change in strategy.

The Counterinsurgency Strategy

When asked earlier this month about the chances for success in Afghanistan, Petraeus said what he has been saying since his first day on the job: “We believe this is doable,” Petraeus said. “This is hard, but doable.”

At the same time, Petraeus, who helped write the counterinsurgency strategy, left room for doubt about what it can achieve.

“There has been progress over the course of the last year in particular. And what we are intent on doing is building on that progress, so that by the end of 2014, Afghan forces will be in the lead,” he said. “And that’s what we’re intent on doing, but I don’t issue guarantees.”

The gist of the counterinsurgency strategy is this: protect the Afghan population, win their support for the Afghan national government and build up Afghan security forces.

Making that happen costs a lot of money. The U.S. is spending roughly $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. It also requires a lot of boots on the ground: at the height of the surge, roughly 100,000 U.S. troops.

For all that, results have been hard to measure.

A Counterterrorism Option

There is an alternative strategy out there: Just go after the terrorists. The best example of that is the special operations raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, talking with troops in Afghanistan last week, didn’t say his No. 1 priority is building a stable Afghanistan or defeating the Taliban — he said it’s fighting al-Qaida.

“One of my proudest moments was the ability as CIA director to work with special forces in the plan to go after bin Laden. That was a major blow to al-Qaida,” Panetta said. “And every time you go out after targets [in Afghanistan], you add to the effort to dismantle and disrupt al-Qaida and their militant allies.”

Analysts say Obama’s decision to start drawing down forces in Afghanistan could be the start of a shift in strategy: less emphasis on fixing Afghanistan (the counterinsurgency strategy) and more emphasis on taking out insurgents with targeted raids and drone strikes (the counterterrorism strategy).

Which Method Works?

Not everyone welcomes such a shift.

“The bin Laden raid, important as it was, was designed to remove one person from the battlefield,” says John Nagl, the president of the Center for a New American Security.

“It’s really, really hard taking people off the battlefield. It’s necessary but it’s not sufficient to accomplish your objective, if that objective is to leave behind a stable society,” he says.

Nagl says a move toward a counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is a short-term fix.

“It has no end state,” he says. “Whatever caused those insurgents to rise in the first place is likely to continue to create more of them.”

Nagl says the U.S. has only committed the right resources to the counterinsurgency strategy in this past year, and success will take more time. But he admits that even then, the outcome is murky.

“There is no guarantee that even if we follow this strategy, that if we work hard to build better Afghan governance, better Afghan security forces, that insurgents cannot again find a base inside Afghanistan, but we make it less likely,” he says.

The question is which strategy works in Afghanistan now: counterinsurgency or counterterrorism. Petreaus will still have a say in the matter, although from a different vantage point.

The architect of the counterinsurgency strategy is set to take charge at the CIA, where he’ll head the counterterrorism fight against al-Qaida.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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