- Expert Roundup
- CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.
In his assessment of the Afghan conflict, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, painted a dire picture and is recommending an infusion of U.S. forces on top of the sixty-eight thousand Americans already allocated. But six months after unveiling a new objective for the Afghanistan-Pakistan region--focused on protecting the public and preventing al-Qaeda from reconstituting in Afghanistan--President Barack Obama is reportedly reconsidering the U.S. commitment to the fight amid mounting Democratic opposition to a surge of U.S. forces.
Six analysts -- Peter R. Mansoor, Andrew J. Bacevich, Amin Tarzi, Thomas E. Ricks, Candace Rondeaux, and John A. Nagl -- offer a range of strategic choices for U.S. planners in Afghanistan.
Provided the Afghan government can gain legitimacy, and that it can be a government that the Pashtuns and other peoples that fuel the Taliban can support, then in the long run we can gain our objectives in Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban insurgency. But you have to ask that question first. Provided that such an Afghan government develops, because clearly the current government is not wholly legitimate, then Gen. McChrystal’s strategy and his strategic assessment is on the mark: The way to win is with a strategy to protect the people. Such a strategy, historically based, requires about one counterinsurgent for every fifty people. Given the size of Afghanistan, both in terms of terrain and in numbers of people, you’re looking at a force somewhere between four hundred and six hundred thousand. Clearly we are under-resourced for that kind of mission. Most of those troops in the long run need to be Afghan troops, but Afghan troops in those quantities simply don’t exist right now. And even if we were able to raise them in the short term, providing military leaders to command the units into which they are organized is going to be a tough chore, given the lack of competent Afghan leaders for larger units. So, this is going to be a long-term affair. In the near term, to turn back the Taliban insurgency and stop their momentum it’s going to require more U.S. forces on the ground, partnering with Afghan forces, protecting the Afghan population, and hunting down Taliban militants.
Now is there an alternative strategy? I have not heard an alternative strategic concept that is viable. A purely counterterrorism approach would merely exacerbate the current insurgency. Any strategic formulation going forward in Afghanistan has to take into account second- and third-order effects of failure to achieve our objectives there. A second-order effect being the impact on Pakistan, and a third-order effect being an impact on the wider Islamic world if the United States is seen to have been defeated by an Islamic insurgency. So these are crucial issues. Only the president can address them, and he needs to engage. Unlike health care or the economy, Afghanistan is truly a near-term crisis that must be dealt with this year.
Washington has gotten itself all tied up in knots over the wrong question. The issue that really cries out for attention is not what to do about Afghanistan. The question that cries out for attention is: eight years into the so-called ’long war,’ does the long war make sense as a response to the threat posed by jihadism? And from my point of view, the idea that fixing Afghanistan will provide any sort of antidote to the threat posed by jihadism is simply absurd. If we could wave our magic wand today and transform Afghanistan into whatever it is the COIN [counterinsurgency] advocates think they can achieve there, the threat posed by jihadism would still exist and would not even be appreciably diminished. So the notion that we should embark on a counterinsurgency strategy there -- which even optimists would concede will require us to continue this campaign for another five to ten years at the cost of several hundred billion dollars, no doubt losing several hundred if not thousands of American soldiers -- really demands to be challenged. I don’t know for certain whether the so-called ’Biden Plan’ will work, but I would insist that the president’s advisers owe it to him to provide some range of alternatives, rather than simply saying ’it’s either the McChrystal plan or abject surrender.’
By dismissing out of hand any of these other alternatives, you frame the argument that it’s either counterinsurgency or abject surrender. It’s not either perpetual counterinsurgency or surrender. There are other possibilities. One of those possibilities is to try to ... outsource the problem of preventing Afghanistan from becoming an al-Qaeda sanctuary by providing incentives to warlords and chieftains to keep al-Qaeda out. To pay them, to bribe them. A second alternative, but it’s one I think I would argue should be married with the first, is the so-called ’Biden Plan’ [President Obama is reportedly considering a strategy advocated by Vice President Joseph Biden that would scale back American forces and focus more attention on rooting out insurgents] in which we would establish a very comprehensive system of surveillance in Afghanistan and that we would monitor al-Qaeda presence and activities and, to the extent that they appeared to pose a threat, we take them out. That approach is not one that promises peace, democracy, and the protection of Afghan women’s rights. It’s an approach that arguably can prevent Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be launched against the United States. And frankly that limited definition of purpose reflects our limited interest in Afghanistan.
We are not very clear now on our objectives. The objectives as stated to the Afghan side are confusing them. In my view, the objectives have to be very clear, and the goals have to be achievable. We need to achieve them because the issue of confidence, the time on that is running out. So whatever [comes] next has to be some very specific objectives, goals that could be achieved so the confidence is recaptured by the Afghan people. The answer depends on that: What are those goals? If the goals are dismantlement of al-Qaeda, there are a definite set of objectives, and you can do that with less troops. However, if the goals are rebuilding an Afghan state that can stand on its own, there’s a need for more commitment in terms of both forces but also civilian aspects of U.S. power, and I believe more international power -- not necessarily combat forces, but more international engagement -- and of course, more time.
Again I’ll say that we need to define the objectives. If the objectives are making sure al-Qaeda does not attack the United States, that’s one set of answers. But if the objective is a stable Afghanistan -- a stable Afghanistan with a civil society that would eventually become a democracy, and I’m selecting my words very specifically because I do not think it’s a democracy [now] -- a country that would eventually become a democracy and most importantly for us, a country that has a police and military force that can sustain its own security, then in that case yes we need to revisit this whole objective.
Can we achieve our goals in Afghanistan if they don’t get the troops that [McChrystal] has asked for? No, [but] it is not clear you can achieve your goals even if you get the troops. The president laid out in March what the strategy was, and all McChrystal has done is said, ’Okay, if you want to implement the strategy, here are the resources required to do it.’ Now the president seems to be saying, ’Well, I’m not sure I want to spend that many resources. Also I might not have that many resources because I’m not sure we’ll get out of Iraq next year as fast as I had hoped to.’ The alternative, the sort of ’Biden Plan,’ frankly we’ve tried a raiding counterterror-type operation, for the last eight years and it has not been successful. So it strikes me, the counterterror approach, as being a nonstarter. If you’re going to do it, you’re going to have to do it in a fairly expensive and time-consuming way. The tragedy to me here is that eight years ago we did have the time and the resources to do it, but the Bush administration started an unnecessary war in Iraq. And Iraq is a mistake that we are still paying for in a variety of ways, and this is just one of them.
Three important factors will have to be considered in shaping the strategy for Afghanistan. First and often least discussed is the impact of the U.S. military presence on regional actors. Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and India each have distinct regional and global interests that must also be taken into account when weighing the calculus of a further troop surge in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, broader American engagement in the region is a double-edged sword that both strengthens the hand of and cuts at the core interests of conservative elements within the Pakistani military and certain landholding elites. Paradoxically, American strikes against the Taliban client base nurtured by elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) undercuts the relatively localized power of certain Pakistani military commanders and their tribal allies while increasing important flows of weaponry and other materiel to the region through Karachi that reinforce their predominance in the overall Pakistani economy.
Second, a move to increase U.S. troops should also recognize the potential for a Taliban counter-surge that feeds parasitically off the detritus of wasteful Pentagon and State Department contractors who are often at the mercy of local insurgent commanders who squeeze their Afghan subcontractors for kickbacks in exchange for allowing reconstruction projects to proceed. If McChrystal and friends are truly concerned about the rise of Taliban shadow governments in the Pashtun belt then the political economy of graft must be confronted head on from every angle with bad Western actors subjected to the same scrutiny as bad Afghan actors. Last, but by no means least, the failures of the Karzai government must be taken more seriously. The current elections crisis in Afghanistan is the latest symptom of the pandemic of corruption that has paralyzed the country. McChrystal is dead on in pointing out that the "malign actions of power-brokers" have undermined Afghans’ faith in their government. Life needs to be made very uncomfortable for Afghan elites who are raking millions off the West’s failure to build Afghan capacity and strengthen institutions. The answer to this part of the problem is not more troops but broader U.S. civilian engagement beyond the 450 experts promised by the Obama administration.
There are always other options, but I personally believe that the counterinsurgency campaign has the best chance of success. For it to succeed it will have to be resourced to a greater extent than it has been to date. We need additional troops to build a bigger Afghan army faster, but we also need additional troops to provide a latticework, a framework of security within which those nascent Afghan security forces can operate. We’re going to need more resources if we’re going to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign. A counterterrorism campaign could be done with fewer resources. I believe [using less resources means] an appreciably lower chance of achieving our ultimate objective, not just of preventing al-Qaeda from again using Afghanistan as a home base for terror, but our ultimate objective of stabilizing the region, which is the prime, most vital American national security concern in the region.
In order to stabilize the region, we’re going to have to build a bigger Afghan army for the long term, and in the short and intermediary term, we’re going to need more American forces to make that happen and provide security in which that nascent force can grow. There is enormous disappointment with the way the elections appear to have turned out. And it is enormously difficult in a counterinsurgency campaign to succeed without a legitimate government to support. President [Hamid] Karzai has damaged his legitimacy, I don’t think fatally, but it is a grave disappointment. One should expect the government of the United States to be looking hard at all its options given the possibility that this government has lost some of its legitimacy.