Afghanistan’s Troop Deficit Problem

As debate over the size and scope of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan intensifies, military strategist Kimberly Kagan says the only way to ensure victory is a better-resourced counterinsurgency campaign focused on securing population centers.

September 9, 2009 9:33 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

The size and scope of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has stirred vigorous debate in Washington. As casualties mount and costs increase, some analysts are calling on President Barack Obama to scale back the U.S. commitment. But Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, says downsizing the U.S. force presence in Afghanistan would be a major mistake. A U.S. pullout today, she says, would create a power vacuum providing terrorist groups "an opportunity to reassert themselves within Afghanistan." Kagan, who advised commanding Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on his recent strategy review, says the better strategy is adding to the U.S. military presence, especially in population centers. "There are too few troops on the ground to be able to clear and hold villages that are essential to the enemy, essential to the government, and essential to our forces," she says.

Late last week, German forces called in an air strike on two hijacked fuel tankers, a strike that apparently killed a number of Afghans, prompting some to question whether new rules (PDF) governing coalition use of air power had been followed. But more importantly, the episode has also exposed a rift in U.S.-NATO operational tactics. How significant are these differences between coalition members?

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What’s so interesting about the conflict in Afghanistan is that very clearly there are folks on the ground who are conducting operations, who are frustrated with the circumstances in which they fight, who are frustrated with the lack of resources, and who are really trying to figure out how to achieve their objective. [But] what I found ... being able to talk to Americans and non-Americans is that actually there was a fair degree of convergence by the folks operating on the ground about what kinds of problems that the coalition faces and what we’ve needed for success. These discussions of friction between American and coalition forces are sometimes discussions about frictions between headquarters, rather than a discussion of friction between the folks who are fighting.

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"We have to recognize that we haven’t actually been pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that aggressively in Afghanistan. We have not ever had the troop densities to conduct the kinds of operations that were quite successful in Iraq."

What we do see is a strain as different home governments look at their overarching objectives and the circumstances in which they’re engaged in the conflict. We have to remember that when this became a NATO mission, it looked as though the country had been secure, and it did not look as though there was going to be an intense counterinsurgency fight. So many of the NATO countries came in with their caveats and mission sets based on a situation that has changed over the past few years. It’s really one of the reasons why we now have to talk about the implications of a counterinsurgency strategy for the alliance writ large.

Underlying the discussion is a broader debate on troop numbers. The White House is reportedly considering adding more troops to the war effort. How might adding troops to an eight-year-old war effort bring about stability?

Although I served on General McChrystal’s strategic assessment team, I can’t speak for him and have not seen the confidential review [delivered to his superiors last month]. What I can say is that there are too few troops on the ground in Afghanistan to conduct the kinds of counterinsurgency operations that the situation merits. There are too few troops on the ground to be able to clear and hold villages that are essential to the enemy, essential to the government, and essential to our forces. This has meant that we are either in too few places or, in most cases in Afghanistan, our troops are spread too thinly. This is a problem that we saw in Iraq in 2006 that was rectified with a surge in troops that created the kinds of force densities needed on the ground to secure a village or a neighborhood. It allowed commanders to go door to door to talk to people and develop the kinds of trust relationships that ultimately allow our troops to figure out who the enemies are, deter them from participating in bad activity, and protect the population from harm should they ultimately turn in the bad people.

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We have to recognize that we haven’t actually been pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy that aggressively in Afghanistan. We have not ever had the troop densities to conduct the kinds of operations that were quite successful in Iraq. When we look at why new troops would matter, the first thing we have to understand is that it’s not just a question of more troops, but rather a question of what those troops allow you to do on the ground that you haven’t been able to do before. When it comes to clearing and holding, there’s been a lot of talk of that, and a lot of it tends to [try to] do that with too few forces.

During a recent briefing (PDF) at the Brookings Institution, you said that American and coalition forces have been stationed in the wrong areas, executing the wrong missions, and not protecting the population like they did in Iraq. What did you mean?

There is some value to being in some of the border posts in and along certain stretches of the border [with Pakistan], but what we really need to focus on are the populated areas and seeing to it that the population turns away from the insurgency and that we drive the insurgents into remote areas. As in Iraq, we need to conduct a well-sequenced campaign to pursue the insurgents until they have minimal impact on the way in which daily life and governance are proceeding. We saw General [Raymond T.] Odierno in Iraq conduct a pretty magnificent set of operations to accomplish this objective over the second half of 2007 and the first month of 2008. I don’t think that can be replicated one for one in Afghanistan, but it does remind us that there is value to driving the insurgents away from the population. What’s key here is that we secure the populated areas that are important to us, to the enemy, and to the government.

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A key aspect of the general’s proposed strategy, reportedly, and a key element of counterinsurgency, is building up indigenous forces. But it’s not a new idea. Many expected President Obama to call for a vast expansion of the Afghan army and police back in March; he didn’t. What are the challenges to rapidly building up army and police forces in Afghanistan?

When we look at the Afghan national security forces, we must realize that because of U.S. policy, the size of the Afghan security forces has been restricted in an effort to, essentially, to keep the costs of building the Afghanistan army and police low. The Afghan budget is very small and Afghanistan will require a great deal of foreign assistance to succeed, as do many other countries within the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The Afghan national army and the Afghan police forces are too small for the tasks that they have on hand, and are too small to defend the country. In addition, they are not as effective as U.S. forces.

The ceiling on the Afghan army needs to be lifted. There are two components to that program. One is to expand the Afghan National Army and some of the police forces more rapidly than we had expected with the president’s decision in March. The question is how quickly we can build up the Afghan National Army. We could do it a lot more quickly than what we had initially planned, particularly if we start now. There are ways we can accelerate the growth of the Afghan National Army so that it will reach, almost a year earlier [than planned], a strength of about 134,000. While understanding that it’s not enough to secure Afghanistan, [it] would give us more troops to partner with and more forces to function in counterinsurgency efforts.

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"There is absolutely no doubt that were the United States to pull out of Afghanistan today, there would be a power vacuum of such proportions that terrorist groups ... would have an opportunity to reassert themselves within Afghanistan."

What we learned in Iraq is incredibly important here: If you wait for the security forces to be big and effective enough to try to bring down a growing insurgency, what you’ll have is an insurgency that is able to ratchet up violence at a rate that’s much higher than the security forces can grow. What we need to ensure is that coalition forces are able to fill the gap both in terms of bringing the violence down over the next year and being able to secure terrain while the Afghan national army is growing. If we try to wait until this time next year--let’s say October 2010--to conduct some kind of counterinsurgency operations, the most likely outcome is that the violence will have increased to such a level that even the additional Afghan army forces and the Afghan police will not be able to handle it. We have to bring the violence down as a coalition while filling up the numbers, effectiveness, and strength of the Afghan forces so that a year or two years from now we reach a crossover point where they’re increasingly capable of handling a lower level of violence. That’s perfectly plausible and feasible.

I want to ask a question that the New York Times pondered this week: If the fight in Afghanistan, as the president has laid it out, is to ensure that al-Qaeda never again uses Afghanistan as a base for an attack on the United States, are there alternatives to achieving this objective without a "troop surge"? The columnist George Will seems to think there are.

It is perfectly plausible to ask about these other options, but they will not work in the situation as it is on the ground in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is very grave. It’s very serious, and it’s deteriorating. It’s deteriorating more rapidly than many Americans had known, and that’s part of the reason why the public debate over the situation in Afghanistan and what to do next has increased over the course of the summer. Understanding the mechanism by which al-Qaeda and other organizations can use Afghanistan as a safe haven is really important. In order to make a decision about how to go forward, we have to understand what we mean by sanctuary. The insurgency within Afghanistan has links to a variety of organizations that are violent extremist organizations with either regional or global aims. What we have to ensure is not simply that there are no al-Qaeda members inside Afghanistan, but that there is a situation where the Afghan government actually has control over its own territory such that there is not a large-scale insurgency and such that actions can be taken constantly to prevent the resurgence of regional or international terrorism from Afghan soil. There is absolutely no doubt that were the United States to pull out of Afghanistan today, there would be a power vacuum of such proportions that terrorist groups that are now based, and quite frankly pressed, in Pakistan, would have an opportunity to reassert themselves within Afghanistan.

Because we’re dealing with an insurgency that is supporting terrorism, it’s not enough to simply find a way to fight just the terrorists. We’ve seen in Iraq that it doesn’t work. Quite frankly, we’ve seen that as well in Afghanistan. What we have to do is defeat the insurgency and the preconditions that really allow extremist organizations to function, to prevent state control, and to generate some sort of power vacuum. And that’s a counterinsurgency campaign.


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