After ten months, people are rightly asking questions about the war President Barack Obama has made his own — Afghanistan. Or rather, they are wondering, observing Vice President Joseph Biden publicly opposing troop increases and Defense Secretary Robert Gates foreshadowing that there is limited time in which to produce success, whether the President wishes to disown it.
In recent days, however, there are rumors that Obama will announce next week the deployment of a further 30,000 troops — 10,000 less than the 40,000 more troops requested months ago by the U.S. commander, General Stanley McChrystal.
All of which raises the question: Why the hesitation? Indeed, one may ask, why is America in Afghanistan, nine years since 9/11? For American security, to be sure, not to promote democracy, though such a pursuit, were it remotely feasible in the near term, would be a worthy one, though still scarcely the purpose.
Promoting democratic means over security ends, as the Bush Administration discovered belatedly in Iraq, can thwart efforts to bring either. Democratization in even more ungovernable Afghanistan cannot be our purpose today, or even five years from now, however much we might hope — and even succeed — to aid it.
So what must be our aim? — To destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban and prevent their reconstitution. But how?
The options split into three and explain in part the hesitation in the White House:
Off-shore: Some, like Washington Post columnist George F. Will, believe that pacification would require many several hundreds of thousands more troops for decades. This being impossible, they counsel clearing out and striking at will “from off-shore” hostile forces that infiltrate from Pakistan.
Special operations: Others, like New York Post columnist Ralph Peters, favor instead “just a compact, lethal force of special operators, intelligence resources and air assets, along with sufficient conventional forces for protection and punitive raids.”
Surge: Still others, like Iraq surge architect Frederick Kagan, advocate a surge to cover a current shortfall in forces, with reductions in foreign troops as the presently 90,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA) grows in a few years to the fill the gap.
Who is right?
Mostly, the surge advocates.
If the objection to the extra commitment of troops is that Afghanistan is not a major terrorist haven that threatens American security, the answer is that, if America clears out, it will become one. Conversely, a massive decades-long surge is politically and logistically impossible.
As a result, the problem must be addressed by other means or, in this case, something of a golden mean: America stays in, but with sufficient forces for at least a few more years to render Al Qaeda impotent until Afghanis can take over the job.
Traditional counter-insurgency doctrine requires, among other important things, a ratio of 1 soldier to 50 civilians. As combat is confined to the Pashtun belt, home to 16 million, a successful counter-insurgency would require some 320,000 troops — about 120,000 more than the current number of 110,000 foreign troops (of which 68,000 are American, following Obama’s mini-surge earlier in the year) and 90,000 Afghans. Little wonder McChrystal, wants another 40,000 immediately.
But, assuming this occurs, who would meet the shortfall in what McChrystal opines will be a decisive year ahead in Afghanistan? The ANA? As the Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon notes, the ANA has grown only very slowly — from a mere 6,000 soldiers in 2003, to 25,000 in 2005, to 36,000 in 2006, 50,000 in 2007 to 58,000 last year. Others have estimated that the latterly increased rate of ANA expansion could mean that the 60,000 shortfall that would exist even if 40,000 further troops are sent could be made good within three years. What NATO might do to fill the breach remains unknown.
In short, more troops are needed, American, NATO and ANA. However, assuming the shortfall can be made good in time, has the U.S. public the will?
An October Washington Post-ABC News Poll presented a fuller than usual picture of a reluctant American electorate. Not only a divided public: 47% in favor, 49% opposed to meeting McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops; but also two-thirds believing Obama lacks a clear plan. Moreover, four-fifths of respondents did not seek to reduce or modify U.S. war aims.
In short, the American public regards the war as important and will support the right strategy, but not if they think — as they have been given reason to believe — that the political will is lacking.
President Obama has defined this war, correctly, as being of deep importance to future American security. But he has not committed the forces necessary to arbitrate the issue. He must not only desire the end, but permit the means.