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Give McChrystal a Fighting Chance

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 2, 2009
Weekly Standard



The 30-minute ride from Forward Operating Base Shank, occupied by the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, is nerve-wracking. This is Logar Province, an area of central Afghanistan that has been the staging ground for major suicide-bomber attacks into Kabul, 45 miles to the north. U.S. troops trying to clear Logar and neighboring Wardak Province since this summer have encountered numerous IEDs--some of them large enough to penetrate even the most heavily armored vehicles. One such blast back in August killed a 22-year-old soldier and seriously injured CBS News correspondent Cami McCormick. As we bounce along the narrow dirt road, the driver of our MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle is clearly nervous. When we pass over a culvert, which insurgents are known to pack with explosives, he mutters, "I hate those f--ing IED holes."

Our arrival at a joint Afghan-American Combat Outpost in Baraki Barak, a small town set among lush farmlands and mountains, is hardly more reassuring. Just as I am getting out of the armored vehicle a loud boom goes off. Incoming or outgoing, I wonder? Turns out it's outgoing. The U.S. soldiers are firing mortar rounds to keep the Taliban off balance and discourage them from planting IEDs. And yet, incongruously enough, before long the talk here turns from combat to economics.

Lieutenant Colonel Tom Gukeisen, the hulking commander of the 3-71 Cavalry Squadron (equivalent to a battalion), explains that the worst fighting is over here. His troops cleared out the Taliban this summer and established a "security bubble" around Baraki Barak. Now they are implementing what they call an "Extreme Makeover," using CERP dollars (Commander's Emergency Response Program) to build projects requested by local villagers. All such projects are designed to provide employment for young men so that they will not be tempted to accept the Taliban's money to plant IEDs. At the same time, Gukeisen is running his own radio station and handing out hand-cranked radios to get out the message that the Americans are here to help and the Taliban aren't. He is publicizing statistics showing that more Afghans than Americans have been wounded in Taliban attacks.

The results have been dramatic. Attacks are down 62 percent and intelligence tips are up 80 percent since August, Gukeisen tells me, adding, "We're not just baking cookies. We're regularly shwacking bad guys based on good intel." But Gukeisen is part of a new breed of Army commanders who know that you can't kill your way out of an insurgency. While it's important to kill or detain insurgents, even more important is to provide durable security and some prospect of a better life to the population. And that's just what he's doing here in cooperation with more than 150 Afghan soldiers and police officers.

Next to the combat outpost is a brand-new district center built with foreign aid money. Inside we sit down to chat with the district governor, Mohammed Yasin Lodin, a natty man with frizzy black hair and a thin mustache, and the police chief, Colonel Amanullah, who is (unusually for an Afghan) clean shaven. Yasin is overflowing with praise for the improvements wrought by the Americans. The Americans later tell me that the governor, for his part, is doing a good job, spending far more time than he used to in the district (his family lives in Kabul) because it is now safe to do so. The Afghan soldiers and police also receive praise for fighting off insurgent attacks on their checkpoints with minimal U.S. help.

"We've got the four horsemen working together," Gukeisen tells me--his nickname for the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, the National Directorate of Security (the intelligence service), and the district government. Gukeisen, in turn, has the assistance of the State Department, which has sent a District Support Team here as part of a new program to improve local governance. Closely mentored and monitored by the Americans, the notoriously dysfunctional Afghan government is showing itself capable of effective action at least in some areas.

But all concerned know that progress is fragile. What would happen if the U.S. troops were to pull out of Afghanistan, I ask Governor Yasin. "Don't even think about leaving!" he exclaims with a laugh. Colonel Amanullah (like many Afghans he goes by one name) explains: "If the snake is injured, it becomes more dangerous and aggressive. The Taliban are angered but not destroyed. If the Americans leave, we won't be able to do what they are doing. Afghanistan will become a battleground worse than before. That will be a very dangerous situation for the whole world and not only for Afghans."

But what about the resentment supposedly engendered by the presence of foreign troops among the notoriously xenophobic population of Afghanistan? Yasin is dismissive: "We haven't seen resentment so far. If the other American troops act as they do here, the United States will succeed in this war."

It is possible, I suppose, to dismiss Yasin's comments as those of a local ally telling American visitors what they want to hear. But there is no lack of self-interested pleading about Afghanistan when it comes to the debate back home. Many Democrats appear eager to minimize our involvement so they can concentrate on health care reform and other domestic priorities. They tell themselves that this is the height of realism because, really, what chance do we have to prevail in the "graveyard of empires"?

If we listen to such advice coming from those who have never set foot in Afghanistan, perhaps it is worthwhile to listen also to the voices of those who are actually here--Afghans and their foreign partners. That's precisely what I did during the course of a 10-day trip across Afghanistan undertaken at the invitation of General David Petraeus. What I heard and saw suggests that many Washington savants are out of touch with the on-the-ground reality.

Yes, winning will be difficult. Tremendous obstacles abound, ranging from the resilience of the Taliban to the ineptitude and corruption of the Afghan government. But it is hardly mission impossible. In areas such as Baraki Barak, U.S. soldiers and civilians have been making impressive progress ever since this summer, when the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan hit 64,000--up from just 32,000 in 2008. (There are now 68,000 troops with the arrival of another brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division devoted to training Afghan soldiers in the south.) But there are still far too few U.S. soldiers here to roll back years of gains by the Taliban in the south and east of the country.

The insurgency is concentrated among the Pashtuns, who number roughly 15 million out of the country's 30 million people. (All such figures are inexact because no census has been taken for decades.) The rule of thumb in the counterinsurgency business is that you need one soldier or cop per 50 civilians. That works out to a requirement for 300,000 security personnel--far below the figure actually deployed. There are 100,000 foreign troops, but 30,000 of them aren't American, and many of those are prevented by national caveats from actually fighting. There are also 184,000 Afghan security personnel--on paper. In practice only 100,000 are actually operational, and the majority of them are police officers who belong to a force that is notoriously ill-trained, underpaid, and corrupt. The Afghan National Army has developed an impressive reputation for fighting hard, but it has only 47,000 troops in the field. However you count, there is a fundamental shortfall of security personnel to combat the well-funded, well-armed Taliban, who operate from secure bases across the border in Pakistan.

Those who oppose General Stanley McChrystal's request for more resources seem to imagine that our troops can somehow sit back on secure bases, train Afghans, and stay out of the line of fire. It's true that standing up the local security forces is our ultimate ticket out of Afghanistan--just as it is in Iraq. But notwithstanding the bravery and growing skill of many Afghan soldiers and police, their forces are simply too small and too ill-equipped to carry the brunt of the battle right now or in the near future. McChrystal is accelerating the growth of the Afghan forces--the army is supposed to reach 134,000 by the fall of 2010--but all such expansions carry major risks. As one senior officer in the Afghan Army told me, there is a serious risk of focusing on "quantity over quality." That is already happening to some extent, with basic training for new soldiers reduced from 27 weeks to just 8 weeks. That makes it all the more imperative that Afghan soldiers also receive on the job training from coalition allies.

What the United States learned in Iraq is that the most effective training comes not from embedded advisory teams, much less from trainers who stay safely on base, but from American and indigenous units forced to operate side by side as they go into combat. That is happening now in Afghanistan, especially in Regional Command-East, where training teams are being phased out in favor of a concept called "Combined Action." (Regional Command-South lags a bit behind because it has fewer Afghan soldiers for now.) Major General Curtis Scaparotti, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, which has responsibility for Regional Command-East, has even dispatched his assistant division commanders to set up forward command posts at the headquarters of the two Afghan Army corps that operate in his area. Here U.S. and Afghan officers are starting to sit side by side, working on identical computers, to better coordinate their two forces. That kind of partnership extends all the way down to the platoon level, with McChrystal ordering that all NATO operations be undertaken jointly with Afghan forces. But to carry out this edict while the Afghan security forces are expanding, the United States, too, will have to expand its commitment, at least for the short term.

To listen to some critics, McChrystal's efforts are doomed to fail because of the fundamental illegitimacy of the Afghan government--an argument buttressed by the fraud that pervaded the presidential balloting in August. But lack of government capacity is hardly unique to Afghanistan. It has been an issue in every country that has ever faced a serious insurgency. A strong government, by definition, wouldn't allow a major rebellion in the first place. Lack of capacity has crippled some counterinsurgencies over the years but that problem has also successfully been dealt with in many countries that defeated guerrillas and terrorists. The most recent example is Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had even less legitimacy in 2007 at the start of the surge than Hamid Karzai has today.

It would be shortsighted indeed if we were to use Afghanistan's woes as an excuse to write off the country as we did once before in the 1990s with disastrous consequences. It makes more sense to surge military and civilian resources that can enable American commanders to work with their Afghan counterparts to improve governance along with security.

That is precisely what McChrystal is planning to do. He is fed up with foreign forces' looking the other way when they uncover evidence of corruption. He has set up a Combined Joint Interagency Task Force made up of intelligence, law enforcement, and military personnel to investigate major cases of narcotics-linked corruption. This is in lieu of the sort of crop-eradication efforts the United States has supported in the past, which served more to alienate farmers than to de-fund the Taliban. The cases developed by the task force can be turned over to the Afghan legal system or simply used to quietly pressure the culprits to leave office.

This is part of a larger effort to establish accountability for foreign aid spending and to make Afghanistan's public-sector spending more transparent and honest. As part of this effort it would be useful to raise government salaries. The notoriously low wages paid to security personnel and civil servants are a major inducement for corruption. Many government employees cannot live on their salaries, and soldiers and policemen make less money ($160 a month and $110 a month respectively) than the Taliban ($300 a month). It also makes sense to embed foreign advisers with Afghan governors and some district leaders, bringing to the civil sphere the kind of close partnering that goes on among military personnel.

Improving the performance of the Afghan government and improving the performance of Afghan Security Forces are two of the top priorities that General McChrystal has pounded into his command since taking over as head of NATO and U.S. forces in June. He also stresses the need to do a better job in "strategic communications" and in detention operations--the former designed to counter enemy propaganda, the latter to keep enemy fighters behind bars in humane conditions where they can be interrogated.

Another priority is to reduce civilian casualties caused by coalition firepower--a major complaint among Afghans. During a daily briefing with his subordinates that I attended, McChrystal stressed this. The Taliban want to posture as protectors of the people, he said, and collateral damage by coalition forces allows them to do so. "We can't say that's just part of war," he said in a raspy voice. "We can put serious pressure on the enemy while minimizing backlash."

This is one of many changes that he has forced on a reluctant and sometimes somnolent NATO command structure. McChrystal drives his troops hard and himself harder. He has brought a sense of urgency that was missing in the past. One senior European officer I talked with noted that the preceding commander, General David McKiernan, painted a "pretty optimistic picture" when he claimed (as he did last winter) that coalition forces had achieved "irreversible momentum" in Regional Command-East. McChrystal, by contrast, warns that unless more is done, the coalition is in danger of losing the war. "McChrystal's arrival has brought a reality check," this officer told me. "McChrystal has been frank enough to force us to ask impertinent questions of ourselves."

One of those "impertinent questions" concerns the deployment of small coalition outposts in remote regions of Regional Command-East along the border with Pakistan. Here small numbers of soldiers were isolated and subject to daily attack in bases that could be supplied only by air. What was the point of having soldiers so far from population centers, McChrystal demanded? Previous commanders had asked the same question, only to hesitate to remove them because they knew that this would represent a propaganda boost for the Taliban. McChrystal went ahead with the consolidation even after insurgents nearly overran Combat Outpost Keating in Nuristan Province in early October, killing eight American soldiers, just days before it was to be dismantled. He insists, rightly, that a successful counterinsurgency strategy must be focused on the people, not on terrain, and that's where he's putting his troops.

McChrystal knows that the American public is impatient and that the counterinsurgency strategy will take time to work, but there is really no alternative unless we are willing to cede Afghanistan to the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. A narrow counterterrorism strategy focused on simply killing insurgent leaders has never defeated any determined group of guerrillas or terrorists. It may seem like we've been at war in Afghanistan for eight years, but given the lack of resources for most of that time, the war effort is really less than six months old in critical parts of the country. "We are essentially where we were in Iraq in 2004," one American colonel told me. "We're just getting started."

The old tactic of going into an area, killing some insurgents, and leaving was about as effective as "mowing the lawn," in the words of another coalition officer. That has been replaced with the classic ink-spot strategy of slowly spreading government control from one population center to another. After this summer's operations, a few such ink spots are scattered across the Afghan landscape in places like Baraki Barak. But as one Marine battalion commander in the south told me, "For an ink-spot strategy to work you need enough ink." The coalition still has too little.

Nawa is one of the more promising ink spots. This is an agricultural district in the Helmand River Valley, where Lieutenant Colonel Bill McCollough, commander of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, has been implementing a strategy similar to the one Lieutenant Colonel Gukeisen has employed in Baraki Barak. He has created a "security bubble" around the district and poured in aid to win the people's allegiance for the government. The results have been astonishing--a ghost town has come back to life. Streets that were deserted when the Marines arrived are full of pedestrians and vehicles. Stores that were shuttered have reopened. Abdul Manaf, the white-bearded district governor, raved about the results. "The colonel will write his name in history for what he has done here, everyone will know the name of the colonel," he told me. "The enemy's back has been broken. They cannot fight anymore. We will never forget that the Marines and ISAF and the whole world came to help us."

McCollough is more circumspect. "Everything you see here is an eggshell," he warns. "It's fragile." If Obama sends more troops, the gains achieved at such high cost in places like Baraki Barak and Nawa can be consolidated and expanded. If he doesn't, the effects of this summer's offensive, which resulted in such heavy loss of life among coalition soldiers (261 killed and more than 1,200 wounded between June 1 and October 1), will rapidly wear off and the Taliban will reassert control. That is the choice confronting the White House. Given the stakes, it's hard to see why it is proving so difficult for the president to choose.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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