Since the Helmand River Valley campaign began, I’ve grown increasingly worried that the mismatch between tactics, strategy and U.S. interests in Afghanistan was growing deeper. Is Michael Cohen right? Is the Obama administration’s strategy drifting further into mission creep? After a conference call with Steve Biddle, one of the advisers to the McChrystal strategy review, I’m starting to agree.

McChrystal Biddle [Update -- Sorry, I spaced on this and am just seeing my error now. My sincere apologies.] thinks Afghanistan isn’t the point in Afghanistan — stabilizing Pakistan is — and so we should devote the next 12 to 24 months to making some imperfect-but-clear-enough improvements in population security in select provinces like Khost, Kandahar and Helmand in order to see that through. What? Biddle even said that the parallel between Afghanistan and Vietnam is a "very important analogy to keep in mind." And he favors staying. Much as I can see the argument that these things are complicated and rhetorical strategy isn’t the same thing as actually winning an argument, when you see your own argument becoming, Well, this is kind of Vietnam-esque… that should really occasion a reconsideration of basic premises.

Then I read, via Michael, that commanders in McChrystal’s orbit are talking about counterinsurgency pretty much at the expense of counterterrorism.

Senior government officials said Bin Laden remained a prime target but that they needed to focus on fighting the Taliban.

"We might still be too focused on Bin Laden," the official said. "We should probably reassess our priorities."

 As Michael says, Oy. There is a good case to be made that the ultimate goal of getting bin Laden and cutting off al-Qaeda’s actually-existing capabilities to project power depend on cleaving apart the bin Ladenist coalition on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; and that depends on, in part, militarily pressing that coalition to induce state-changes; and that depends on acquiring intelligence from the population preyed upon and passively supporting that coalition’s members (a point Biddle, in fairness, made); and that depends on attending to the population’s material goals — security, wealth, access to services. That is a counterinsurgency strategy for a counterterrorism objective. Among the reasons worth supporting that strategy is that not providing for the population stands a great chance of, well, failing in its counterterrorism aims. Why should the population support us, anyway, if we don’t give them a reason? 

But there’s a big difference between that and a counterinsurgency strategy for a nation-building objective, and a still greater one between that and a counterinsurgency strategy for a prophylactic objective. The American people have never approved sending 68,000 troops to suffer for Hamid Karzai, and certainly never approved sending them to keep Pakistan from falling to the Taliban. (Which, by the way, seems like a distinctly unrealistic scenario, especially now that the Pakistani military moved into Swat. The Taliban-led insurgency is a threat to Pakistan. It’s not going to rule the country. Westerners have a tendency of predicting the imminent fall of Pakistan every five years or so.)

Perhaps I’m misreading what it is the people around McChrystal are saying, but it seems fair to say that the balance of evidence favors an interpretation that Afghanistan strategy is coming unmoored from the actual objectives of the war, and the actual interests at stake, and the White House is being either deluded or outright dishonest about what’s happening. "Our goal is to deal with the terrorist elements that are in that country and are making life for Afghans and potentially life for millions throughout the world more dangerous through their activities," Robert Gibbs said from the White House podium today. That is simply not what’s coming from McChrystal’s circle.  

Aus-Rotten, "Vietnam Is Back." A killer song I jammed at 15 at ABC No Rio and as a sullen teenager. Sure, it sounds hysterical, but it’s hardcore day today and this was all I could think of while writing this post. I am taking tomorrow and Saturday off, and in my place you will find two very cool guestbloggers. I’ll let them introduce themselves. See you on Sunday. UP THE PUNX