Hobbled in Kabul

Speaking to a friendly crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last week, President Bush declared: "The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and their allies are on the run." Although he wasn’t declaring victory ("Afghanistan has a long road ahead"), the president made happy talk about elections, hospitals and roads being built, and girls who previously were forbidden from going to school now being able to do so (his speechwriters probably dusted off one of his old speeches and simply substituted "Afghanistan" for "Iraq").

Some senior Bush administration officials, however, paint a more sober picture. According to Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "We are seeing only mixed progress." Mullen’s boss, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, agrees: "I would say that while we have been successful militarily, that the other aspects of development in Afghanistan have not proceeded as well."

But even claims of military success in Afghanistan are suspect. Last year, more than 6,000 people were killed – including more than 200 soldiers from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – and U.S. casualties were higher than any year since Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in 2001. Needless to say, President Bush did not cite these statistics in his CPAC speech.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband fears that Afghanistan could become a failed state if more is not done. According to U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, the supreme allied commander for Europe and the highest military authority in NATO, "We do not have adequate forces." Commanders in Afghanistan have been calling for another 7,500 soldiers to be added to ISAF’s current force strength of about 43,000 troops (there are also another 13,000 U.S. soldiers as part of OEF and not under ISAF command).

If more troops are the answer, 7,500 won’t be enough. The historical standard of success for counterinsurgency operations is 20 soldiers per 1,000 civilians. For the whole of Afghanistan (population nearly 32 million), that would mean a force of 640,000 troops (almost 15 times the size of the current ISAF force). For just the capital city of Kabul (3 million people), the required force size would be 60,000 troops.

So why not surge in Afghanistan as we’ve done in Iraq? After all, the administration is claiming the surge is a success.

Because we can’t. Although the Pentagon plans on sending an additional 3,200 U.S. Marines to Afghanistan this year, the harsh reality is that the Iraq occupation has stretched the U.S. military thin and thus unable to significantly beef up the force in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, NATO and other U.S. allies are reluctant to commit more troops – either because they don’t have them or, more likely, because of waning domestic support as violence increases and more troops are killed. And to pile on, Canada is threatening to withdraw its troops if other NATO countries do not throw more into the fray.

To further complicate the situation, to the extent that there are enemies to be confronted in Afghanistan, a good many of them are coming from across the border in neighboring Pakistan. Although Pakistan is supposed to be a U.S. ally, the Musharraf government is unable (and perhaps even unwilling) to control the Western provinces that border Afghanistan and thus prevent cross-border incursions.

But more importantly, although adding more troops may yield military tactical success, it is ultimately a strategic mistake. To begin, more troops would simply reinforce the perception that the Karzai government is being propped up by and a puppet of the West rather than a sovereign government of a Muslim country. And just as it has been (and will continue to be) in Iraq, a large occupying force in Afghanistan would be a magnet for jihad (the lesson of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s). Even the current relatively small force is problematic – after all it was the presence of 5,000 U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia that became a raison d’être for Osama bin Laden to declare war on America.

Unfortunately, because President Bush seems to believe that speeches about Afghanistan and Iraq are interchangeable, there is no reason to believe that he doesn’t think the same about policy. So even if we are somehow able to avoid the mistake of occupation in Afghanistan (either by design or default), it seems that we are not likely to avoid the mistake of trying to make democracy the cure for all that ails us. But just as U.S. security does not depend on democracy on the Tigris and Euphrates, neither does it depend on democracy in the Hindu Kush. Rather than insisting on democracy in Afghanistan and placing all our bets on Hamid Karzai (when will U.S. policymakers learn not to make policy based on persons or personalities, as we are doing with likely disastrous consequences with Pervez Musharraf in next-door Pakistan?), the only demand U.S. policy should make is that the government in Kabul – whatever its form – not harbor or support al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group that would attack America.


Secretary of Defense Robert Gates now says he would support a temporary halt to the drawdown of U.S. troops this summer. Needless to say, I’m shocked, shocked.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.