June 1st, 2010
09:59 AM ET

Is there a Plan B for Afghanistan?

Within weeks, 20,000 U.S., Afghan and coalition forces will have poured into the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan - a longtime Taliban stronghold. The mission: establish security for the people, improve local government and push the Taliban out.

It's the biggest battle yet in the counterinsurgency warplan of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. U.S. forces have already struck Taliban targets in the area, but McChrystal is now trying to make it look like a more gentle war.

"We're not using the term operation or major operations, because that often brings to mind in people's psyche the idea of a D-Day and an H-hour and an attack," he said at a Pentagon briefing in May.

But what happens if this Plan A doesn't work? Some people say Plan B is to make Plan A work.

"In a sense, that's right because there are always alternatives but in this case the alternatives aren't that attractive," says Stephen Biddle, an occasional adviser to McChrystal.

One alternative is the acceleration of Afghan forces' training, Biddle says, but "there aren't a lot of options other than that. Do you make troops on patrol walk faster?"

No one expects the insurgents to cut and run. They haven't in nearby Marjah, where U.S. troops are using a similar strategy and have been fighting for months. Marjah was supposed to give the U.S. the momentum to move on into Kandahar as the next target.

But McChrystal recently called the Marjah campaign "a bleeding ulcer."

"When Gen. McChrystal referred to Marjah as a bleeding ulcer, he was talking about the perception of the outside world," says Gen. Nick Carter, Commander of Regional Command-South, ISAF. "And of course, in the same way that it's important that Afghan perceptions go in the right direction, it's important that the outside world also has the right perceptions."

For McChrystal, the clock is ticking. He says he will know by the end of the year if his plan is working.

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