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The AfPak Debate: Biden, Holbrooke and Rubin

Good details from the WSJ today:

Administration officials in the Biden camp fear they too could close off the path to a more peaceful resolution of the conflict if 40,000 more troops are sent. They believe most of the Taliban fighters, and some of their leaders, are neither hard-core, violent Islamists nor sympathetic to al Qaeda.

Some are nationalists trying to rid their country of foreigners. Some leaders are willing to flip sides depending on the deals on offer or the momentum on the ground. Many more are simply doing it for the money paid by Taliban leaders.

According to senior administration officials, among those pressing the case most effectively is Barnett Rubin*, a top aide to Richard Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's special representative to the region. Mr. Rubin declined a request for an interview. A senior military official said it is unclear whether Mr. Holbrooke supports such a view. A White House official said Mr. Holbrooke had breakfast with Mr. Biden Tuesday morning.

As to the NYT's lead today--that Obama will not order a big drawdown in troops--this seems like smart or at least useful media spin for the White House. Whether by calculation or happy accident, Obama has seeen the parameters of debate broadened. Whereas his March speech appeared to commit him to a big counterinsurgency, he is now poised to take a middle ground between McChrystal (40,000) and withdrawal. Despite the talk of audacity, pragmatism has always been a hallmark of his, after all.

The concern here would be that Obama is committing to a counterinsurgency strategy, but that--for understandable political and human reasons--he is wary about sending the force level required to do it right. It seems to me like a close call between COIN and CT. But if you go with the former, you probably need to go pretty big--something I was trying to get at in this recent piece.

* For more on Rubin's views of Afghanistan, you can read his w(inter 2008 Foreign Affairs essay (written with Ahmed Rashid), which argues that sending more troops "would be insufficient to reverse the collapse of security there," and calls for compromises with insurgents and a U.S.-led regional diplomatic initiative.