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Media Conference Call: Stephen Biddle on U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan

Speaker: Stephen Biddle, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
July 30, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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STEPHEN BIDDLE:  (In progress.)  Afghanistan was certainly a haven for attacking the U.S. in 2001 and could become so again.  But so could Yemen, and so could Somalia, and so could Djibouti.  And so could dozens of poorly governed spaces around the world.  Some are arguably more suitable for this purpose than Afghanistan would be.    

If we are going to send multiple brigades of American infantry to deny al Qaeda a haven, in any place that it decides to turn into a haven, we're going to run out of brigades, a long time before al Qaeda runs out of havens.    

We're going to have to find a different way of solving that problem, at east for the next one to follow Afghanistan, after Afghanistan per se.  But while Afghanistan is not unique as a  potential haven for striking us, it is unique as a potential haven for destabilizing Pakistan.  It's located right across the Durand Line. And its insurgence activity is powerfully influenced by a Pashtun- identified insurgent group -- (audio break) -- ambitions that straddle the Durand Line.    

But should Afghanistan fall to an insurgent coalition that has important territorial interests in Pakistan, as well as in Afghanistan, it runs the risk, I think, of becoming a major contributor to a potential breakdown of order in Pakistan.  And Pakistan, for reasons everyone is now very familiar with is an extraordinarily dangerous place.  And it is an extraordinarily dangerous place over which we have very limited positive leverage to make things any better.    

In a situation where our ability to make things better has real limits, and where it's an extremely dangerous country, with the potential for a very serious national security threat, to the United States, it seems to me that it is not inappropriate to invoke the Hippocratic Oath and at least do no harm.    

And one way in which we could do considerable harm is by allowing Afghanistan to collapse into a condition that would create a major haven for making the situation in Pakistan much, much worse.  That, I think, is the primary case if one is going to make the case for waging war in Afghanistan.    

But as I argued in the American Interest piece, I think this is a close call on the substantive merits.  I don't think this is a slam- dunk either way.  I think there are obviously serious costs and risks in waging this war; there are serious costs and risks in liquidating our position and walking away.  I think this one's a close call on the merits.  

GIDEON ROSE:  So we're fighting a 21st-century Vietnam because of a Central Asian domino theory?  

BIDDLE:  I don't know that the domino theory is the Vietnam analogy that I would immediately apply to this situation, in part because we're only talking about one domino here -- (chuckles) -- the problem is literally right across the Durand Line.    

ROSE:  But it's not -- you know, there's just an indirect rather than a direct goal.  It's not about -- you don't care about Afghanistan so much as you care about Pakistan.  

BIDDLE:  That is true.   

ROSE:  The -- you know, in the current London Review of Books, there's a very interesting piece by Rory Stewart that basically takes the more restricted role, saying that, you know, we're not going to be able to change Afghan politics and we should basically have a much more reduced mission and in effect back off, let the politics play out as they will and let local counterinsurgency or -- no, not counterinsurgency -- local counterterrorism units, perhaps special forces, deal with any -- you know, what you called that first set of problems.  Is there a lot of discussion of that over there or in circles of government here as you know it?  

BIDDLE:  Well, without discussing the internal deliberations of the group in Kabul last month, obviously there's a lot of discussion over other ways than classic counterinsurgency to deal with this set of problems.    

The president's review, several months ago now, is widely reported to have involved a debate between a group centered on the  vice president, that emphasized remote strikes by drones and other counterterrorist resources to try and suppress al Qaeda activity without doing nation-building or counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, and an alternative group that ultimately won the day, that argued that the way to deal with al Qaeda is by counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.    

So this is a debate that's raging broadly around the policy community at the moment.  

Again, my own view is that this whole question of al Qaeda using Afghanistan to strike the United States is not inconsequential but is the lesser challenge.  So whatever you think drones can do to keep Osama bin Laden's head down and to keep he and Zawahiri ducking and perhaps suppress terrorist strikes in the United States as a result, those techniques, I think, are a very weak device for keeping the Karzai government in office and preventing its replacement with a Pashtun Taliban alternative that would be a threat to Pakistan.  

ROSE:  Another Vietnam parallel is that the domestic political costs of failure might be one of the key drivers of the situation in Washington, and that there may be -- as you say, since the current situation is not terrible for American interests, keeping it going indefinitely may be the least bad short-term option for Washington, as it was in -- you know, in the '60s, which leaves you down the road in an even worse situation long-term.  

Do you worry about that at all here?  

BIDDLE:  Well, certainly I do not think that perpetual life support is the appropriate policy for Afghanistan.  If I thought that was the best attainable outcome, I would say let's liquidate our involvement and go home now.  I would much rather see an unsuccessful outcome obtained at lower cost via a shorter war than an unsuccessful outcome obtained at higher cost at the end of a longer war.  I actually think it -- it's possible, not guaranteed, but it's possible to do a good deal better than that in Afghanistan.  

But the domestic political context here is important for many ways.  I mean, I'm not an expert in partisan American politics, so I won't comment so much on that except to note that if the administration were to make the decision right now to pull the plug, come home, liquidate our involvement in Afghanistan, and if that were to lead to the fall of the Karzai government and the ensuing destabilization of Pakistan, and if Pakistani chaos eventually enabled their nuclear weapons to breach containment, you could very well be looking at a situation in which a U.S. presidential administration made a voluntary decision before it had to do so that had some chance of bringing about an outcome that a generation of historians after this could easily view as the single greatest catastrophe in U.S. -- recent U.S. foreign policy history.  It would make the invasion of Iraq look like sound, thoughtful policy-making.  

And I think it would -- my sense is, it would be an unusual presidential administration that would be willing to spin the roulette wheel on that.  

ROSE:  But isn't that exactly how we got into Vietnam, I mean, or rather got deeper, because no one was willing to bite the bullet and take the costs or risks, rather, of withdrawal, because it was always cheaper or easier to keep things going?  

BIDDLE:  Well, I think that's a very important analogy to keep in mind.  Again, I thought the analogy between Iraq and Vietnam was misguided and unhelpful.  I think the analogy between Afghanistan and Vietnam is potentially a good deal closer.  The underlying nature of this conflict is much closer to Vietnam than Iraq ever was.    

That doesn't necessarily mean that the same outcome is foreordained.  And I think a central implication of all this for anyone who does not decide that this close call on the merits should be resolved in favor of withdrawal is, if you are going to stay, we need to make darn sure that we get a better outcome than we did in Vietnam, that we fix some of the mistakes that we made then, and that we do it right this way.  

I don't think even if we do it right we can guarantee a success. But I think the probability of success is much higher if we do it right.  I think we have much better potential, partly as a result of observations of doing it wrong in Vietnam and by prior combatants in Afghanistan.  I think we are in a position in principle to do better this time.  But if we are going to stay, we absolutely need to do better.  

ROSE:  I'm going to throw it open to our very distinguished audience in just a second for some Q&A, so get your questions ready. And while they're doing that let me ask one more of my own, which is, okay, Steve, you're one of the world's top experts in conventional warfare.  You are a major expert in, you know, counterinsurgency and all kinds of warfare.  Does it bother you that one of the key pillars of the problem and challenge -- one of the two major challenges that you're recommending we go forward on has nothing to do with warfare at all but is really a question of sort of state-building, nation- building and governance capacity-building and so forth; that we have a terrible, terrible track record of actually getting anywhere on, especially in circumstances as inhospitable as contemporary Afghanistan?  

BIDDLE:  Well, I think the harder of the two challenges I mentioned earlier is the governance problem.  

I think the likelihood of success in security provision is higher than the likelihood of success in governance reform.  I think there is some chance of success in both domains, but governance is the harder of the two.  

Now, for whatever it's worth -- being a good Clausewitzean, as most people in the strategic studies biz these days are -- all war is about politics.  So the idea that war is about destroying the enemy is a -- is a pretty limited way of thinking about war.  So in that sense, this is a more extreme version of a problem that's ubiquitous, in thinking about success and failure in the waging of war.  

I think it's also worth noting that, to the extent that the outcome in Iraq today is substantially more favorable than what we were looking at in 2006 -- which I would argue, anyway -- that was in part brought about by a very deliberate decision by the command in Baghdad to be interventionist and coercive politically vis-a-vis the Maliki government.  And the key dimension of that in 2007 was pressure on the Maliki government and leverage on the Maliki government to eliminate known sectarians.  

Now, without some very important military changes on the ground, involving the surge and many not, that would not have been sufficient. But we do have some recent track record in the U.S. military of using military assets to try and create pressure for at least partial political change.  Now, we didn't get the scale of political change that we wanted in Iraq, but we got enough political change to enable the violence to come way, way down.  And if we get lucky, maybe it'll stay down and we'll be able to withdraw.  

And remember, we -- we do not need to eliminate corruption in Afghanistan.  We do not need to create a centralized, Jeffersonian democracy in Kabul.  We need improvement, but we don't need improvement on that scale.  If we're systematic, I think, about using the resources at our disposal, we have a chance -- no guarantee, but a chance -- to get the degree of governance reform that we need.  

I also think that, because we haven't systematically tried heretofore, we have some degree of obligation, if we think the stakes here are important enough to warrant waging war at all, to start trying.  And I would like to see us make as one of our major objectives in the next 12 to 24 months enough of a serious, concerted effort to use all sources of leverage to get governance reform, so that at the end of that period we can make a decent call on whether or not it's possible, or whether or not Rory Stewart is right.  

And if, after 12 to 24 months of a serious run at this problem, we don't make any headway, I think that would be a very substantial piece of evidence to suggest that the probability of success is too low, and we really at that point ought to rethink our involvement in the war.  

ROSE:  Excellent.  We'll now turn it over to our guests.    

One last quick question.  Were you impressed with the U.S. team there, militarily, and do you think we have the right people in place now even to make the effort you just said?  

BIDDLE:  Well, I am very impressed with General McChrystal, and I am impressed with many of the people that he's brought in with him.  The team at the moment is in a period of transition.  Its makeup three months -- (chuckles) -- from now is hard to project, but I think there is substantial talent in the U.S. military for the waging of counterinsurgency in 2009.  We've come a long way that way.  And again, I was very impressed with General McChrystal for a variety of reasons that I'd be happy to discuss if people would like.  

ROSE:  Okay.  And with that, let's turn it over to your questions, please.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key, followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phones now.  Questions will be taken the order they are received.  Once again, that's the star key, followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phones.  

ROSE:  Do we have a question yet?  

OPERATOR:  Our first question comes from Peter Spiegel.  

QUESTIONER:  Ah, yes, Dr. Biddle, Peter Spiegel with the Wall Street Journal.  I wonder if you could talk a bit about what our footprint looks like now.  Obviously, this is a legacy of General McKiernan, heavy deployments into Helmand, continued deployments into some of the least -- less popular -- populated areas, the Korengal Valley.  Any view as to whether that should be changed, that footprint, to what extent General McChrystal may refashion that as troops begin to flow in?  And are -- did you take a look at the way McKiernan has structured this?  

BIDDLE:  Yeah, I can't speak for the general until he announces the results, but I can speak for myself.  And speaking for myself, I think the current distribution of forces is not ideal.  I think, to an important degree, it's a legacy of an attitude that long predated David McKiernan:  that our primary purpose in Afghanistan is to hunt terrorists in the mountainous border region, and hence we had a large deployment in the mountainous border region.  

I think at this point the appropriate way to think about this campaign is it's population-defense counterinsurgency, and having troops that we can't afford to now deploy located in places that are not central to the defense of the population of the country is a luxury that we just don't have the troop count to afford.  So I would prefer to see a redistribution of U.S. assets, as well as an increase in resources.    

I would also, again, speaking for myself, think it's important to create for the Congress and the American public a demonstration in the next 12 to 24 months that we can, given the proper resources, turn the war around, in security terms, and also in governance terms.    

And if it were me, I would pick a small number of critical provinces as -- I don't think the military would ever call it this, but as essentially model provinces where we are going to commit the resources required there, we are going to do triage, and we're going to accept economy of force status elsewhere, but judge us on what happens in this handful of provinces that we are designating as critical proof-of-principle areas.  

My own choice for those, for whatever it's worth, would be coast and surrounding countryside, Kandahar province and Helmand province, and very little beyond that, but certainly not a large deployment of forces along the border with Pakistan and the northeast.  

QUESTIONER:  Okay.  Thank you, sir.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Indira Lakshmanan.  

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Dr. Biddle.  I wanted to ask you your own opinion of how much of an increase you would like to see in the Afghan national security forces -- police and military -- and also what sort of an increase, if any, you think is necessary on the U.S. troop side.  

BIDDLE:  Yeah.  Well, let me talk a little bit about the principles involved, rather than giving a specific number, because, again, I think General McChrystal is going to come out with a number shortly in his round of --  

QUESTIONER:  Sure, but your number would be useful to know -- like, what your own view of the number is.  

BIDDLE:  Well, I mean, I think a useful place to start in thinking about the right number is with the idea that our mission at this point is to protect the population rather than to go hunt insurgents.  So the size of the population and the distribution of the population is an important driver on what kind of resource level you need.  

Now, if you think Afghanistan has a population somewhat above 30 million, the standard rule of thumb in current U.S. Army doctrine for troop adequacy, for conducting stabilization operations, is about one trained counterinsurgent per 50 members of the population.  So that would imply a requirement for something north of 600,000 counterinsurgents of some kind from some place.    

Many people believe that the north and the west of the country are not threatened in the way that the south and the east are.  So it's common in these kinds of debates to discount that number by the expectation that you don't need to defend the north and the west in the way that you do in the south and the east.  So if the population is about -- is roughly evenly distributed, one could cut that figure in half, perhaps.  

I am less optimistic than I was before the trip.    

Gideon asked what if anything, in my view, changed with the trip. And one thing that did change is, I'm less optimistic at the margin that the north and the west are perpetually stable than I was before going there.    

I think they are substantially more stable than the south and the east.  But it is entirely possible that what we're looking at, in the north and the west, is a south and the east of three or four years ago, and that if eventually a security force density and a governance situation there isn't eventually improved, you could see a decay of security in the north and the west, perhaps to levels that you now see in the south and the east.    

So somewhere -- as a really, really crude ballpark rule of thumb, based on these standard ratios, you would end up with a figure somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 for the sum total of Afghan national security forces plus Western assistance.    

QUESTIONER:  And how do you -- how would you like to see that broken down?  Do you think the U.S. should send 10, 20, 50,000 more, and the Afghans should, you know, maybe increase the ANSF forces by 50 or 60 percent?  Have you thought about that at all?    

And thank you.    

BIDDLE:  Well, I think, the right way to think about this, it seems to me, is as a team effort.  For many reasons, we would like the primary heavy lifting in the security domain to be borne by Afghans rather than foreigners, for lots of reasons, both military and political and economic.    

To do that effectively for quite a while to come requires a very close integration and partnering and mentoring of Afghan forces by Western forces, in part because this provides role models for newly raised organizations, in part simply because of the arithmetic of military experience and senior command.    

Afghan troops by all accounts are already pretty good at the small-unit tactical level.  I think the Afghan security forces are substantially better overall in fact than the Iraqi security forces were, as recently as 2006 or in the first half of 2007.  But they're particularly good at the small-unit tactical level.    

Where they have their biggest problems is in coordinating large- scale military activity at battalion level and above.  And that  shouldn't be surprising.  We would not allow anyone to command a battalion who didn't have about 20 years of prior military experience.   

There isn't a pool of 20-year-experienced officers in Afghanistan ready to take over that level of command.    

If you partner an Afghan unit with an American unit -- for instance, let's say you were to partner an Afghan corps of three to five brigades with an American brigade -- what you now have is a 20- to-25-year-experience American colonel commanding that brigade who can provide, with his staff, key assistance in the higher-level functions of senior leadership in the Afghan military in ways that can cover for the weaknesses that are inherent in a young military at higher levels of command and higher levels of organization.    

So I think probably something like one U.S. brigade per three to five Afghan brigades is not an unreasonable ratio.  If you take that and you assume that you're going to need somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 providers of some kind, and you look at what we have now, it could, in principle, lead to a requirement for a very large increase in both ANSF and Americans, inasmuch as I think the only foreign force that's likely to ramp up its troop levels substantially anytime soon is us.  

So I think you're talking about a lot more people, Afghan and U.S., in order to bring that about.  

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Viola Gienger.    

QUESTIONER:  Hello, Dr. Biddle.  This is Viola Gienger at Bloomberg News.  I wanted to ask you a couple things.  How many were on this advisory team, and how much agreement was there within the group?  And also, you -- when you mentioned the north and west might go the same way as the south and east, why do you think that's the case?  Is that because the militants are being driven to other areas?  Or are there other factors?  And when you said that probably -- that the U.S. should ask for some returns for what we provide in terms of incentives to the government there to sort of clean up its act, what do you have in mind?  Can you be more specific?  

BIDDLE:  Okay.  Well, let me start with the team.  There were about a dozen nongovernmental analysts on the team that did the overall assessment, mostly from a variety of Washington think tanks. The group was chaired by two Army colonels, Colonel Chris Colenda (sp) and Colonel Daniel Pick (sp) of the command staff.  And we were  supported by a variety of other officers from the staff.  But the core of the group that was tasked with developing the overall assessment was about a dozen civilians.  I can provide you the specific names and affiliations if you like.  

In terms of the internal deliberations of the group, I can't talk a lot about the -- you know, the sort of fault line substantively; inasmuch as, again, this is pre-decisional at this point.  General McChrystal is now evaluating what to do with our recommendations.  But I think it's safe to say that in any environment like this, where the stakes are enormous and where you're in a hothouse environment with lots of other smart, knowledgeable and strong-willed people who have very strong opinions on what should be done, and you're locked together for a month -- (chuckles) -- of 14- to 16-hour days, seven days a week, tempers inevitably flare.  And there was some of that in this group, too.  

Again, this is the third of these drills I've been associated with in one way or another, and the two that I know best had plenty of fireworks internally.  But certainly, the one previous effort that I know best, the Iraq Joint Strategic Assessment Team, I think produced a consensus document that was a -- a strong piece of analysis and I would like to think contributed meaningfully to an improvement in the situation there; notwithstanding that people from time to time got angry with each other.  I think that's just an indication of how seriously people take it.  And I don't think there was any unusual level of that in this group relative to other similar undertakings I've been part of.  

Now, as far as the question of the north and the west and what's the causal logic in this projection, if you think that a central requirement for the Taliban to get any headway in Afghanistan has been misgovernance, that a properly governed state with a sufficient density of security providers would not have allowed the Taliban back in -- I believe that; I think that's also a fairly widely held view -- then parts of Afghanistan where governance is being done very badly and there's a very low density of security providers are places you ought to worry about.  And those are both true of the north and the west.  

Now, the advantage that the north and the west have is that the Taliban has a strong Pashtun ethnic identity.  The south and the east are strongly Pashtun; the north and the west, much less so.  

But there are Pashtun enclaves in the north and the west, as well as the south and the east.  They're minority communities, but nonetheless enclaves are present.  And I think the -- and we have seen an uptick in violence, especially in the north recently, which to date has been mostly but not exclusively in the Pashtun enclave areas.  

But the hostile coalition in Afghanistan is not exclusively Pashtun.  The IMU, for example, is Uzbek.  Al Qaeda is Arab rather than local Pashtun.  So there is some mix of ethnicities associated with the opposition.  That creates the risk that there will be other entry points into the north and the west available.  If misgovernance continues to be as bad as it has been, even in the north and the west, I think, in the out years, that creates an opening.    

Now, to some extent that opening can be made worse by the movement of insurgents out of areas where we're conducting active operations and into areas where there are lower density of security forces.  There are limits on how fluidly that can happen, in part because a significant fraction of the hostile forces in Afghanistan are very local; they're fighting in and around their home villages. It's less likely that they would pick up and move, you know, hundreds of kilometers to other parts of the country than would the full-time semi-professional military cadre that directs them.  

But there is likely to be some degree of flow elsewhere in the country as security increases in key districts, initially in the south and to some extent in the east.  The main problem is, if we can't improve governance to the point where it's not an open sore, then we eventually create openings for an enemy that is in the field, is looking for openings and is actively trying to exploit them at the moment and is well-funded to do so to take advantage of that.  

It's not going to happen as rapidly in the north and the west. That's one of the reasons why they're much quieter now, and that's a great advantage that we should take advantage of.  But if we leave it in perpetuity with an insufficient density of security forces and plenty of casus belli in the form of aggressive misgovernance, eventually I think we're asking for it.    

I don't think it's a near-term priority.  The north and the west, in my view, have to remain economy-of-force areas for some time to come.  But in terms of sizing out what will eventually be needed in order to stabilize the country, there I'm less confident that we can just exclude the north and the west from ever having to be secured.  I think eventually we need to lock that down too.  

Last but not least, you asked for some examples of incentives and leverage.  And let me just -- potentially there could be dozens and dozens and dozens or hundreds.  Let me just give you a couple of illustrations of possibilities, starting at the trivial level and moving up to the more substantial level.  

The main point is that any -- we do thousands and thousands of things in Afghanistan every day.  Any of them can be made conditional on behavioral change.  As illustrative examples of some of the possibilities, when an Afghan official asks for an entry visa to the United States or to Britain for their son or daughter to go to college, we provide it if -- if -- you stop doing the following, then you get the visa.    

If you don't, then you don't.  

QUESTIONER:  You're holding the kids of the officials hostage to their parents' behavior?  

BIDDLE:  Well, for that matter, there's no reason that we necessarily have to issue visas for anyone to travel to the United States, if we think that we're encouraging bad behavior by so doing.  

But let me move up to something more consequential.  We -- we dig wells, we build schools, we provide development assistance all the time at a variety of levels of government and a variety of levels of effort.  We typically do that asking nothing in return.  I think we start -- we need to start asking for things in return.  If we are going to provide this assistance, we expect that you are going to stop pulling innocent Afghans out of their cars and beating them unless they provide bribes to the local police, for example.  

Moving up to the national level, the Karzai government wants very badly, and understandably, to have a major expansion in the security forces that it controls.  Those security forces can be provided faster or more slowly.  They can be made more independent of Western support or less independent of Western support.  That provides a potentially very useful means by which we can create an incentive for them to reduce the scale of high-level abuse of power.  If you want that -- "That brigade is scheduled to go into training this month and to come out of training in six months.  It will go into training when the following happens, and it will come out of training when the following happens."  We can speed up or slow down that process, with a tremendous richness of detail and fineness of gradation, as a means of creating both sticks and carrots for getting behavioral change out of the Afghan government in key areas.  

Another way of thinking about this in this context is the speed with which Afghan units come out of training.  

The default tendency of the U.S. military when training foreign militaries is to keep these units in training until they are absolutely ready to go, because I think, for good reasons, we understand the military importance of good training.  

You could accelerate this process and let them come out earlier but make them capable of dealing with insurgent opposition by teaming them closely with foreign troops -- Americans, British, Canadians.  An Afghan unit that is dependent on us for its ability to fight successfully, or that's dependent on us for logistical support, that can't move without fuel or spare parts or ammunition resupply provided by the United States, gives us a substantial degree of influence over how those forces are used and where they're deployed.  And that influence can be used to contribute to the positive incentives for some key governance change.  

I could go on at considerable length.  The point is, we do a tremendous number of things in Afghanistan, and what we do is very important to them.  What we do is very important to us as well. Coercive leverage of this kind often affects both parties to some degree.  But there are a variety of opportunities to select levers where we can turn off or turn on an activity without cutting off our nose to spite our own face and have a greater effect on them than on us in ways that can create positive incentives to move to a more tolerable governance outcome in the country.  And I think we ought to be exploring those aggressively.  

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from James Kitfield.  

QUESTIONER:  Hi, Stephen.  I wonder if you'd talk for a second about the time clocks that are ticking here, and whether they are in sync.  You talk about the need for between 300(,000) and 600,000 troops total, combination of American, probably, and increases in Afghan -- but that doesn't seem likely to happen, to me, within the next couple of years, seeing anything like that level.  Correct me if I'm wrong.    

And I -- you know, politically, it seems to me that, you know, the Obama administration has sort of put this thing on a year to year -- 18-month timetable for something good to happen, or else they're going to, like you said, reconsider whether this was, you know, worth investing more in.  

Do you see some problems after the experience with Iraq in the time clocks and what is capable -- what we can accomplish in the next, like you said, year to 18 months might not get the job done and then -- and political will might run out?  Give me your sense of that.  

BIDDLE:  Well, I -- there's a widespread perception in Washington, and I don't disagree with it, that within the next 12 to 24 months, we have to show that the tide has turned and the situation has changed; that we're on a track towards failure, if we continue the way we're going; something needs to visibly change.    

That doesn't mean we have to win the way in 12 to 24 months, nor can we.  I think that's an unrealistic time scale, if anybody is thinking that way.  But we need to show in 12 to 24 months that the situation has been changed, in an important way that creates a different trajectory, that you can tell a story about how it eventually leads to something like successful securing of U.S. vital national interests at the end of the road.    

You don't have to reach the end of the road in 24 months.  But you have to put yourself on that road, in a way that's visible, demonstrable and clear.  And again what I think that requires is serious movement, on both of the main tracks of security and governance.    

And in the security dimension, I think, that means picking key parts of the country, not little fly-speck spots but significant piece of territory, you know, set multiple provinces, and turning around the security environment, creating security where there was not security previously and holding it that way for a time.    

I don't think it requires that you do that in every province in Afghanistan, nor can we.  But I think if you can show that in areas where we do provide the right level of resources, we can provide security, even where it didn't exist previously.    

Then what you've done is create a demonstration or an existence proof that when the rest of the resources make their way into the country, and when the rest of the training process, for the ANSF, is completed, and you get to the point where you can provide the necessary number of security providers, in the necessary places, expect what happened in these provinces to happen elsewhere.    

That, I think, you need to be able to demonstrate.  The other thing, I think, you need to be able to demonstrate is that a more systematic use of leverage, with the Karzai government, is capable of bringing about meaningful change in governance; some significant reduction in the kind of grand mal abuse of power that we've seen and that's been such an important contributor to the growth of the insurgency.    

You don't need to eliminate corruption.  You don't need to cashier every power broker associated with the Afghan government.  You need to make visible, demonstrable progress somewhere in some key area to prove that you know how and to prove that the means at our disposal are sufficient to move -- to make a difference and to move the situation.   

If you can't do that, I don't think we'll be able to persuade key audiences in the United States, and the clock will run out.  And if we can't do that, you won't be able to persuade me -- (chuckles) -- and I'll be advocating in a call like this in two years that we should get out.  I think that has to happen.   

And the right duration, again, I think is 12 to 24 months, doesn't require that you win the war, requires that you make demonstrable change somewhere in a way that establishes the case that it can be done elsewhere.  

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  

OPERATOR:  Our next question comes from Spencer Ackerman.   

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Thanks very much.  It sounds a lot like what you were tasked to do on this review was come up with a strategy for triage rather than for success.  Is that an accurate way of viewing it?  And what would you view over these next 12 to 24 months as the key metrics in these key provinces that you want to have this demonstration effect in?  Should we expect, because of the imbalance in capabilities between U.S. and Afghan forces, to see a more Americanized effort in that timetable?

BIDDLE:  Well, let me start by saying our -- the mission we were given by the command was tremendously broad.  I mean, we weren't -- to put it mildly, we weren't told by Stanley McChrystal, "Please tell me how to do triage (in 12 to 20 months ?)."  If anything, my own view is that we need to do triage in the first phase, the 12 to 24 months out, short-term.  Because we don't have the resources to do the whole country at once, those resources will ramp up gradually and won't be available in sufficient quantity by 12 to 24 months from now. And the outcome is uncertain enough that we need to put the required resources in the required density somewhere, to show to others and to ourselves that we know to turn things around, so that the idea of triage is my own view -- again, I won't speak for the group; the report will come out, I hope, in mid-August, and with luck it'll be  publicly distributed, and you can see whether my view prevailed or not -- (chuckles) -- but I -- my view is, I think triage is necessary because of resource constraints in the short term.  

The resource level ramps up slowly.  We have a 12- to 24-month window in which we need to show some change.  If that's all you could ever do, I would say pull the plug and go home now.  I mean, triage does not meet our security interests in the country.  We need eventually to be able to affect areas that are not in the first wave of primary- effort provinces.  

But again, the problem here is that the resources don't become available instantly.  They ramp up slowly, partly because we have ongoing important requirements in Iraq and that drawdown occurs over time, and partly because the indigenous Afghan security forces, that have to be such an important role of eventually providing the necessary force density, can't be created overnight either.  It takes time to organize and recruit them, train them and, you know, move them through the force development process and into the field.  

So I don't think triage is a virtue.  I think it's a necessity created by resource constraints.  But these are resource constraints that have to be lifted in the longer term through slow, gradual buildup, or else we will fail.  

QUESTIONER:  And on those questions of metrics?  

BIDDLE:  Oh, I'm sorry.  On metrics, let me start with some metrics that are not very helpful, and that's the casualty count to friendly forces, and that's the number of violent incidents, especially when those two numbers are taken at the national level.  

Success and failure in classic counterinsurgency doctrine is about protecting the population, not killing the insurgents or keeping your own troops alive.  So I think that the key metrics end up being: How many civilian deaths have there been in the areas that we are claiming to be attempting to secure?  To what degree has the provision of government services improved in these areas that we are claiming to secure?  What percentage of judicial actions are resolved in a sanctioned rule-of-law setting, as opposed to taking place through violence or through the Taliban?  To what degree does the local government in the areas that we are claiming to secure actually produce a budget, execute it and implement it?  To what degree has economic performance in these key areas changed and improved over time or not?  

But the metrics that I think the matter -- that I think matter the most are how well -- various versions of:  How well is the  population doing in the areas that we have triaged as our primary efforts?  

Things are going to get worse elsewhere, outside the triage provinces. Therefore, national measures don't tell you very much.  What you want to know is:  Where we're trying to make a difference with the right density of effort, is it working or not?

Secondly, violence is going to go up.  It's not going to go down. At a minimum, it's going to go up in the short term.  It may go up and stay up for quite a while.  I mean, classic counterinsurgency involves a tradeoff where, in order to bring violence down eventually, you have to operate in ways that accept risk and that reduce your ability to protect your own forces.  And that inevitably causes a spike in casualties, as it did, for whatever it's worth, in Iraq in the first half of 2007.  It will also cause a spike in general violence.  

One of the standard measures that people use in Afghanistan all the time and used to use in Iraq and is not particularly helpful is the violent incident count.  If we are doing this right, the violent incident count should go up.  If we are securing populations that the Taliban cannot afford to allow us to secure, they will be required to counterattack, and that will bring the violent incident count up.    

Eventually, all of these indicators have to turn in the right direction.  I mean, Switzerland -- (chuckles) -- does not currently have a high violent incident count and a high attrition rate of domestic police.  Many of these, however, are substantially lagging indicators.  And the ones that are primary and need to change for the better soonest are the ones that pertain to: Is the population being secured?  So those, I think, are the -- and in the key places geographically.  That's where I would concentrate in the 12-to-24- month future.  

ROSE:  Unfortunately, on that note, given that it's now 4, we're going to have to conclude.    

I want to thank you, Steve, for taking part in this.  Basically, there are very few people who actually know what they're talking about, who are well intentioned and who are sane enough to be able to discuss the pros and cons of different courses of actions (sic) rationally.  So we really appreciate your taking the time to be with us.

And thanks to all of you for participating, and we'll hear you or see you on the next call.  

Thank you very much.

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