There’s another group that’s more affiliated with counterinsurgency that says, in some cases that’s appropriate—in some cases we have no other tools but that—but the danger there is that you’re focusing too much on an enemy, and you’re not focusing on a population that has discreet material reasons for providing that terrorist with succor and with at least passive support. And unless you provide that population’s material needs, you are ultimately locked in a battle of infinite regression, whereby you kill one person and the network is able to regenerate that capacity, and on and on and on. And also, you’re going to run out of ways in which you’re going to track that person, because if you’re in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, and you’re tracking an al Qaeda affiliate, eventually you’ve got to get intelligence about that person. And to get the intelligence about that person that’s most reliable you need to collect intelligence from the people around that person, his tribe and social connections.

And the question that you’ve always got to keep in your mind, this school of thought argues, is that the person you’re seeking to get information from has to get something in return—there has to be an active reason for that person to cooperate with you, because often that requires placing himself or herself at tremendous personal risk. So the population-centric strategy holds as a fundamental tenet that unless you address the broader needs of a population, the counterterrorism mission is compromised from the start, or that it will very quickly face some diminishing returns.

GM: There was an interesting line from Rory Stewart in the Financial Times the other day, in which he analogized the policy in Afghanistan to driving off a cliff, but wearing your seat belt while doing it. I think his frustration was that the boundary of strategic possibilities tends to be too narrowed by the political leadership. Do you agree with that view? And is there a role for the national security press in prodding political leaders to take a more expansive view?

SA: I think the biggest problem strategically, in the debate, is there isn’t a sufficient distinction between the enemies the United States faces and the enemies the United States needs to face. Stewart is absolutely right that there can be this self-distorting effect of trying to address a question from the root cause, when a political decision having been made already didn’t address the problem from the root cause. So you end up having your advice as an expert—although I’m not really ever in this situation—distorted.

From what I’ve seen, the Obama administration, when they confront this problem, they turn kind of white as a sheet. And you’ve been seeing this in some of the people who’ve come back from advising the McChrystal strategy review, that this is an enormous and enormously complex problem, and no one is really confident that their solution is going to work—I should say, no one is willing to bet the house on it, and is already thinking, well what if this fails, and this fails, and this fails?

Now it if does, and one of the reasons that it does is that they haven’t thought of the problem back from the root questions—what is the American national interest at stake here, what are the costs that we’re willing to bear to see that through, what are the alternative ways of addressing this threat, what are the acceptable pools of risk?—then it’s not going to do to say, well we thought about it really hard and we were well-intentioned and we were torn and we were trying to address this with the diligence and seriousness it deserves. At some point, you’ve got to really be responsible for the decisions that you make. This is an awful situation that they’ve inherited, but it’s theirs now.

I would also say I’ve encountered in the administration a number of people who’ve read not just Stewart’s interview with the FT but his London Review of Books piece, which was a real ground-breaking piece in terms of opening up the debate in Afghanistan and expressing a lot of fears that people had, particularly fears that the debate was too constrained. That was really a very influential piece, including within the Obama administration.

GM: We’ve had eight months now to see how the Obama administration addresses these issues. Has there been anything that’s surprised you about the approach he’s taken?

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.