Nobody said it was going to be easy. The day after Gen. Stanley McChrystal sent his strategic assessment to the Pentagon, the call for retreat is already being sounded, this time, from columnist George Will. But Will’s article demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of not only the nature of Afghanistan, but counterinsurgency writ large.
Will quotes a Dutch commander in-theatre to highlight the backwards, primitive nature of Afghanistan…"like walking through the Old Testament” the commander said. Surely, Afghanistan does not conform to western understanding of a modern, advanced society… and America does not seek to make it such. Afghans are smart, they understand more than many Westerners assume. To their credit, the majority of Afghanistan’s population supports the war against the Taliban, including coalition and Afghan efforts to achieve some real progress after eight years of neglect. All they want in return is security. Thus far, they haven’t gotten it.
Delving into Will’s discussion of counterinsurgency, he is somewhat correct in describing the Taliban’s ability to “evaporate and then return.” But the Taliban are not superhuman, they are not ghosts. Their ability to “evaporate and then return” is predicated on two current conditions: 1) the absence of sufficient Afghan and coalition forces; and 2) the ability to coerce and intimidate local populations. Much like in Iraq, a sufficiently resourced war (see Surge) and the ability to secure population centers are aimed at removing the insurgency from the population. If this can be achieved, the tide starts to turn.
As far as the “time and ratio of forces” required for a successful counterinsurgency campaign… those numbers aren’t hard and fast either. Achieving the proper ratio will not necessarily require a massive coalition footprint for “a decade or more.” It will however require sufficient indigenous security forces to augment and eventually take-over. An entire brigade of the 82nd Airborne has been tasked with exactly that. The new benchmark for the ANSF is 160,000 police (up from 92,000) and 240,000 for the army (up from 134,000). I’m quite confident that the military understands the necessity of fielding a proper security force, both in sheer numbers and capability.
As far as country’s history of central governance, Will contends that it “never” had one. That’s not exactly true either:
“Afghanistan has been an independent country since the 18th century, with such strong monarchs as Dost Mohammad, who drove out a British incursion in 1842 and ruled for 33 years. Under King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, Afghanistan made considerable economic and political progress, including the adoption of a fairly democratic written constitution. It was relatively peaceful and stable before a Marxist coup in 1978 set off a long period of war and turmoil whose most consequential events were the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Soviets' departure in 1989, and the rise of the Taliban starting in 1994.”
What’s really surprising about Will’s commentary is his trumpeting of a counterterrorism strategy as the new “revised” policy. This failed Rumsfeldian approach is one of the most glaring reasons for the strategic failures of the past several years. Will contends that this can be done alone from “offshore” drones, intelligence and missiles. Unfortunately, effective counterterrorism is predicated on effective intelligence, that which can only been garnered through an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Some would argue that “offshore counterterrorism” would have serious unintended consequences, some of which we have been privy to over the past several years. Collateral damage (the death of innocent civilians) is perhaps the surest way to turn the population against Afghan and coalition efforts. In short, we become the enemy while the real enemy, the Taliban, capitalize on local discontent. For this very reason, one of General McChrystal’s first orders was to restrict the use of airstrikes, “air power contains the seeds of our own destruction if we do not use it responsibly,” he said.
What we have seen in Afghanistan, even to this very day is the remnants of Gen. McKiernan’s campaign plan. Over the past several years, we have been fighting in the wrong places, in the wrong way and with the wrong assumptions. A significant shortage of resources have contributed to the deleterious situation. A full-spectrum counterinsurgency strategy is needed, and that is exactly what was delivered to the Pentagon yesterday.
There is nothing wrong with questioning the rational of an ongoing war; in fact, it is often quite the responsible thing to do. That said, a misguided call to inaction can be dangerous indeed. Gen. McChrystal was asked to conduct a 60-day campaign review of the war in Afghanistan. Yesterday, he sent that review to the Pentagon. His conclusion: “success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”
Jeff Dressler is a Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.