Obama’s Afghanistan strategy suffers from not enough of nearly everything that matters. His criteria for “success” — deny Islamic terrorists sanctuary — is appropriate and his new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy — “clear, hold, build” — is correct. But he doesn’t have enough of the critical tools to deliver victory.
Wars are lost when critical building blocks are under resourced. Afghanistan at the moment suffers from not enough troops (U.S., allied and Afghan), American public support, sufficient time, civilian expertise, Afghan grass roots support and Pakistani cooperation. Whether or not these deficiencies can be remedied will dictate whether Obama’s new strategy ultimately wins or loses in Afghanistan.
Retired Gen. James Jones, Obama’s National Security Advisor, identified three key outcomes from the new strategy: “security, economic development and reconstruction; and governance by the Afghans under the rule of law.” The first order of business, according to Jones, is creating a secure environment before the other outcomes can occur.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s new commander in Afghanistan, is focused on creating a secure environment. McChrystal acknowledges “The Taliban cannot defeat us militarily, but we can defeat ourselves.” He indicates winning is “…our ability to separate insurgents from the center of gravity — the people. Following this intent requires a cultural shift within our forces.”
But McChrystal’s cultural shift –“clear, hold, build” — COIN model and the other elements of the strategy require enough of the right ingredients, which could be his downfall.
McChrystal probably does not have enough troops. During the presidential campaign Obama said Afghanistan was “greatly under resourced.” In Feb., Obama committed an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan but warned, “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops.”
But he must understand COIN operations require enough troops to secure the population. Logic suggests Afghanistan, which has 14 percent more people who live in widely dispersed rural settings and one-third more land area than Iraq, should require more troops to secure the population than the 160,000 troops surged for Iraq’s counterinsurgency in 2007. Why isn’t Obama applying that logic to Afghanistan?
Obama is “surging” American forces in Afghanistan to 68,000 or about 100,000 foreign troops when NATO forces are counted. (Those numbers aren’t an effective measure because many of those troops — including most of the NATO troops — don’t operate in contested areas.) General David Petraeus, America’s regional commander, argues fewer forces are needed in Afghanistan than in Iraq because the Afghan military campaign will focus on just 10 percent of provinces that are the source of about 70 percent of a sharp escalation in violence. We’ll see whether that logic works, but even if it doesn’t NSC adviser Jones told McChrystal that Obama wants to hold troop levels flat and focus on other aspects of the strategy.
There are not enough allied forces nor should we expect more. Gen. John Craddock, commander for America’s European Command, said NATO allies are too quick to come up with reasons they cannot contribute more and they impose restrictions on the troops they send which limits their usefulness. The Germans, for example, are prohibited from offensive combat operations.
There are not enough Afghan security forces. Last week, Marine Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who commands fighting units in Hellman province, complained, “What I need is more Afghans.” McChrystal concedes there are insufficient Afghan security forces — 86,000 soldiers and 82,000 national police — to protect the country and participate in a full-fledged COIN campaign. That’s why Obama’s surge includes 4,000 U.S. trainers who are intended to accelerate Afghan training with the goal of turning over responsibility for all security to Afghans as soon as possible.
There may not be enough American public support to sustain the war effort. The Afghan war turns eight years old this Oct. and support is dwindling. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 55 percent of “Americans say the war is going badly for the U.S., up two points since April.” [Jun. 12 to 16, 2009]
Dwindling popular support for war is often first felt among congressmen who face the electorate every two years. This spring key congressional Democrats wanted to bow to public discontent over the war and begin cutting off war money. Instead they warned the White House to show progress soon or see war funding imperiled.
Even Adm. Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, understands the clock is ticking on Afghanistan. Last week, Mullen spoke about the war using time-sensitive phrases like “accelerate,” “as quickly as possible,” “as rapidly as we can” and “as rapidly as possible.” He didn’t promise instant success in Afghanistan but suggested “We need to turn that around in the next 12 to 18 months.” That’s a tall order given that insurgencies average between nine and twelve years.
There aren’t enough civilian experts. In March, Obama ordered a “civilian surge” in Afghanistan. His intent is to relieve our troops of civilian functions by integrating more civil servants in the development, reconstruction and governance part of the strategy’s work.
Obama wants several hundred civilians from various government agencies – from agronomists to economists — sent to Afghanistan this year. But it appears there aren’t enough government volunteers which explains why the State Department recently advertised 125 temporary or new civilian posts to be filled in Afghanistan in the coming months.
A similar “civilian surge” was attempted in late 2008, said Rep. John Tierney (D- MA.), a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Tierney explained, “…the U.S. embassy in Kabul requested a major increase in government civilians in such areas as governance, rule of law, development and diplomacy to be deployed at provincial and district levels. Regrettably, we are told that this request was not fulfilled.”
There isn’t enough grass roots Afghan support “because they [coalition forces] kill innocent people,” said an Afghan driver from the town of Maidan Shahr. To drain the built-up hatred for the coalition forces, Obama’s strategy increases the risk for our troops by changing the combatant’s rules of engagement (ROE).
The new ROE requires troops to “be sensitive to Afghan cultural norms” and imposes restrictive guidelines for air and ground operations. McChrystal acknowledges the new ROE puts his men at increased risk but promises it will save lives later. At least 20 coalition soldiers died last week in Afghanistan.
Finally, there isn’t enough help from neighbor Pakistan. McChrystal said Afghanistan and Pakistan are “… unique situations that are linked inextricably.” Islamabad’s offensive against the Taliban drains resources from the enemy in Afghanistan which is a positive. But Pakistan must permanently secure its side of the common border to deny the insurgents sanctuary from which to launch operations into Afghanistan. So far, Islamabad’s operations are not doing nearly enough to defeat thousands of Taliban and foreign fighters hiding in mountain outposts on the Pakistani side of the border.
Obama’s Afghan strategy lacks enough of many critical ingredients to deliver “success” which begs the question whether America should increase its level of effort or abandon Afghanistan altogether and accept the associated risks. For now it appears Obama will execute his strategy without enough of most everything needed for “success.”