By Andrew Callam
October 19, 2009
By Andrew Callam
October 19, 2009
On the march to Baghdad in 2003, General David Petraeus uttered a riddle repeatedly to a reporter embedded in his unit. His riddle, so profound in its simplicity, came to symbolize the primary conceptual failure and lack of foresight of the Iraq war:
“Tell me how this ends.”
As the Obama Administration considers committing an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, nobody has been asking this question. Proponents of an increase assert that we need more resources to “succeed” in Afghanistan. But what would success look like? And do we need 40,000 more troops to get there?
The fact is that 40,000 more boots on the ground would accomplish very little in Afghanistan. A troop increase will have a minimal effect on our current strategy and ignores fundamental roadblocks to a more stable country. Further, the Obama Administration must clarify the endgame in Afghanistan. If our goal is simply to eliminate an al Qaeda safe haven, then committing more troops towards a counterinsurgency strategy is the wrong path to take. Obama’s Afghanistan team must clearly define the Afghanistan endgame and present a coherent strategy of how to get there.
General Stanley McChrystal, the American commander in Afghanistan, is rumored to have requested an additional 40,000 troops as part of his counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. This number is puzzling considering it is far short of the number needed to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy. An additional 40,000 soldiers would put the entire Afghanistan contingent—including international and Afghan forces—at roughly 250,000. This is well short of the estimated 660,000 needed to implement a successful counterinsurgency strategy needed for a country Afghanistan’s size. Despite what General McChrystal may request, he will need more than 40,000 to “succeed” in Afghanistan.
Adding more troops would also do nothing to solve a more fundamental problem in Afghanistan: poor governance. A successful counterinsurgency strategy requires the existence of a legitimate government that can provide for its citizens. The current Afghan government can do neither. Any American effort in Afghanistan is bound to fail if the government rigs elections, employs warlords and drug dealers, and fuels corruption.
The American people will not accept the amount of manpower, time and effort to carry out counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Adding this amount of troops now is a half-measure that will bring costs, but little benefits.
In fact, such an ambitious strategy is not necessarily needed to accomplish our goals in Afghanistan. When President Obama released his Af/Pak strategy in March, the stated goals are “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda” and to prevent a safe haven from reemerging in Afghanistan. Does doing so require that we defeat the Taliban?
Proponents of a troop increase assume that ground gained by the Taliban is ground gained by al Qaeda. This assumption does not hold up against recent evidence. Over the past year, the Taliban has expanded its presence into provinces in the East and South, even pushing into the normally peaceful North. Al Qaeda is a different story. Several administration officials have asserted that al Qaeda’s presence has diminished in Afghanistan and the organization as a whole is struggling for funds. Such evidence would suggest that al Qaeda’s prevalence is unrelated to the success of the Taliban.
Remember: the reason we are at war with the Taliban it protected al Qaeda as it planned attacks. Yet al Qaeda today has plenty of havens—in Somalia, Yemen and especially Pakistan. “Even if al Qaeda were to reenter Afghanistan sometime in the future, the United States would face the same basic terrorist threats that it does today,” says Rick Nelson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. While there are plenty of reasons to prevent the Taliban from returning to power, the “safe haven” argument is a weak one.
If the goal is to completely eradicate the Taliban from Afghanistan and ensure that the group never returns, the United States will need a lot more than 40,000 troops to do it. If the goal is to eliminate al Qaeda from the region, then counterinsurgency is simply the wrong strategy.
The Obama Administration must ask itself: Is it in our interests to defeat al Qaeda or eliminate the Taliban? Adding 40,000 troops without clarifying the strategy would indicate that nobody is asking these questions. Adding these troop would indicate that nobody has any idea of how this will end.
History is full of examples of policymakers who fail because they neglect to question basic assumptions. If the public debate about Afghanistan is any indication, they are failing to do so again.