Different Country, Same Problem

by , August 28, 2009

Over the weekend, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – Admiral Mike Mullen – said that the situation in Afghanistan "is deteriorating" and that the "Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated."  These remarks precede an assessment of the Afghanistan mission by General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to be presented in the coming weeks.  There are currently about 62,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (which will increase to 68,000 by the end of the year) and another 35,000 NATO troops.  What everyone wants to know is if McChrystal will ask for more.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Gen. McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, had a request outstanding for 10,000 more troops. Gen. McChrystal said he hadn’t decided whether to request additional U.S. forces. "We’re still working it," he said.

Several officials who have taken part in Gen. McChrystal’s 60-day review of the war effort said they expect him to ultimately request as many as 10,000 more troops.

And Maine Senator Susan Collins writes in her blog: "The General [McChrystal] says that he has completed his analysis and will report his recommendations through his chain of command to the President in September.  It seems, however, pretty clear to me that he will be asking for more troops although he does not say that since he won’t preempt his report to the President."  She is, however, troubled by the prospect of pouring more soldiers into Afghanistan – which is in contrast to her fellow Republican Senator John McCain who believes McChrystal "ought to do what Gen. Petraeus did, and that’s decide exactly on the number he needs" but that people in the administration "don’t want to see a significant increase in our troop presence there."

The problem with more troops in Afghanistan is fourfold.  First, from a purely tactical perspective, the current force level (62,000 U.S. and 35,000 NATO for a total of 97,000) isn’t enough and 10,000 (plus the remaining 6,000 for the planned build-up to 68,000 American soldiers for a total of 113,000) also isn’t enough.  The historical rule of thumb for successful counterinsurgency/occupation is 20 troops per 1,000 inhabitants.  The population of Afghanistan is over 32 million people, which would require 640,000 troops – more than the entire U.S. Army active duty force (548,000) and nearly the combined total of the active duty Army and Marine Corps (749,000).  However, the current force size is sufficient to occupy Kabul, which has a population on nearly 3.5 million people if the goal is simply to keep newly elected President Hamid Karzai ensconced as mayor of Kabul.

Second, boots on the ground by themselves aren’t enough.  Although we’d like to believe that there is a kinder and gentler way to occupy a foreign country – hence the Obama administration’s decision to build up both military and civilian forces in Afghanistan and the expectation that in addition to more troops, General McChrystal will also ask to double the number of U.S. civilian workers in Afghanistan – the harsh reality is that history demonstrates that successful occupation also requires a willingness to use indiscriminate and harsh, even brutal, tactics to suppress all violence and opposition in order to impose security and order.  This is exactly what the British, often thought of as the best in conducting counterinsurgency, had to do to crush the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s – but in the end, the Kenyans threw off the reins of British colonialism and gained their independence.

Third, the occupier must be willing to stay the course for many years.  For the British, that meant six years in Kenya and over a decade in Malaysia.  Ultimately, however, the occupier must leave.  And it’s worth noting that the last occupier of Afghanistan – the Soviet Union – left after a decade, but in defeat (there’s a good reason Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires – no occupying power has won there).

Fourth – and most importantly – whatever short-term tactical success is achieved, occupation is ultimately strategically counterproductive.  Occupation fuels resentment among the occupied civilian population which, in turn, makes it easier to recruit insurgents and target the occupier.  This is exactly the phenomenon that led to the United States being attacked by al-Qaeda on September 11, 2001 – which is not the same thing as saying America deserved to be attacked, but we must be able to recognize cause and effect for what it is.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should.  It’s Iraq déjà vu all over again.  Apparently – and tragically – we seem not to have learned the lesson of Iraq.  Instead, we seem to believe that we can do it better in Afghanistan.  But since there is no evidence to support this belief (just as there was no evidence to support the belief that the Bush administration could create democracy on the Tigris and Euphrates), it is simply hope against experience.

Read more by Charles V. Peña