As the United States approaches the end of its 12th year of conflict in Afghanistan, much of the history of the war has already been written. Although magisterial works setting the U.S. intervention in the context of the broad sweep of Central Asian history, or into the somewhat narrower sweep of America’s wars, may have to wait until the war has a perceptible end, studies of specific characteristics of the conflict, of the key events, and of the politics surrounding the war have been in publication almost since the first U.S. air strike in 2001. In particular, recent literature has focused on the development and implementation of the Afghan counterinsurgency “surge” strategy by the Obama administration over the course of 2009.
The Afghan surge is nearly as fertile a topic as the Afghan War itself. Popular writing has focused on such issues as the bureaucratic process that led to the surge, the personalities involved, or on alleged mistakes made in implementing the strategy.1 Specialist literature has honed in on U.S. counterinsurgency strategy itself, either as applied to Afghanistan or as an operational concept generally. But discussions of the administration’s internal debate over the surge tend to overlook the importance of the very fact of this debate, a controversy over ends and means, or over the acceptability and feasibility of a proposed strategy, as an exemplar of strategic leadership. Whether President Barack Obama and his team arrived at the correct strategy obscures the more important point that they were, critically, holding the correct debate. History is replete with cautionary examples of what happens when leaders fail to conduct this fundamental strategic calculus. Means are elevated over ends and strategies are divorced from realistic objectives, and the result is disastrous, as Imperial Germany learned in 191