Bidding War Over Afghanistan

Barack Obama and John McCain are currently engaged in a bidding war to see who can promise more troops in Afghanistan. In an op-ed published by the New York Times last week, Obama wrote that if he is elected president he will provide "at least two additional combat brigades [roughly 10,000 troops] to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering, and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there." Not to be outdone, the next day at a town hall meeting John McCain raised Obama one combat brigade: "Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades … and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them."

The first question that comes to mind is: Where would troops for Afghanistan come from? Obama’s proposal is to redeploy troops that are drawn down from Iraq. McCain claims that "thanks to the success of the surge … forces are becoming available." But if the total number of U.S. troops deployed (regardless of whether they are in Iraq or Afghanistan or anywhere else except back home) is still the same as it is currently, the strain placed on U.S. ground forces will not be relieved – as evidenced by some simple math.

There are currently about 150,000 U.S. soldiers (Army and Marine Corps) in Iraq and another 36,000 in Afghanistan. The rule of thumb is that for every unit deployed, two more are needed to be able to relieve troops in the field at reasonable intervals. So if the total number of troops deployed stays the same, 558,000 total troops are needed to sustain the deployment – which accounts for nearly the total active duty U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The problem of being able to maintain deployments is further exacerbated by the fact that current military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have required a substantial National Guard and Reserve component (as much as 40 percent of the total force).

Even if more troops could be found, another 20,000-30,000 is probably not enough. Including the U.S. military, there are currently about 60,000 foreign coalition troops in Afghanistan, which has a population of nearly 32 million people. The historical standard for successful occupation operations is 20 soldiers per 1,000 civilians. So increasing the total force to just under 100,000 troops still falls woefully short of the 640,000 that would be needed, if history is to be believed (though 100,000 soldiers might be enough to control the capital city of Kabul and keep Hamid Karzai ensconced there as the mayor).

There is also the minor detail that much of the violence in Afghanistan has its origins in Pakistan – where, by the way, Osama bin Laden is presumably still at large. So more troops in Afghanistan are not going to the solve the problem that Pakistan has become a sanctuary for al-Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban – despite the fact that Musharraf regime claims to be a U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Finally, there is the wisdom of putting more troops in Afghanistan. If there is a lesson to be learned from Iraq it is not that the surge is working. Rather, it is that military occupation is not the solution but actually part of the problem. A foreign military force provides a rallying cry for jihad, as demonstrated by the fact that al-Qaeda is not having any problems using Afghanistan to attract foreign recruits to expel the infidels – much as the mujahedeen did previously under Soviet occupation. The other problem is the civilian casualties caused, however unintentionally, by occupying forces (and despite Karzai’s constant pleas to avoid killing innocent civilians). On Sunday, U.S.-led forces killed nine Afghan police after both sides mistook each other for militants. The day before, NATO forces accidentally killed four civilians. Also this month, an Afghan government commission concluded that a U.S. bombing run in Nangarhar province killed 47 civilians. And in a separate incident in Nuristan province, Afghan officials allege that U.S. aircraft are responsible for killing 22 civilians.

Not only do these incidents undermine the fragile Karzai government, but they also breed exactly the kind of anti-American resentment that is the basis for the terrorist threat to America. Every innocent civilian killed is someone’s father or mother, sister or brother, relative or best friend. It’s probably safe to say that those people likely harbor no great love for the United States, which makes it easier to win them over to the ranks of al-Qaeda and radical Islam.

So whether it’s Obama’s two brigades or McCain’s three, both are bad bets.

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.