Can Afghanistan Be Won?

According to the Britain’s highest military commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, "We’re not going to win this war." This is in stark contrast to the political rhetoric of our two presidential candidates, who are both calling for more troops to be deployed in Afghanistan. According to Obama, "We’ve got to get the job done there and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there." [The sound bite "just air-raiding villages and killing civilians" is being used in a new McCain attack ad painting Obama as "dishonorable." And John McCain claims, "We’ve got a lot of work to do in Afghanistan. But I’m confident, now that General Petraeus is in the new position of command [as the commander of US Central Command he will oversee US military involvement across the Middle East, including Iraq, as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and other Central Asian nations], that we will employ a strategy [modeled after the surge in Iraq]… It’s a strategy that will succeed."

The reality, however, is that victory in Afghanistan is as elusive as it is in Iraq. That’s because victory can’t be defined in terms of military victory (as was the case in World War 2, for example). The US defeated Saddam’s military in Iraq and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan – but neither military success resulted in victory. Indeed, Brigadier Carleton-Smith believes we should not expect “a decisive military victory" in Afghanistan. Why? Because as a British Ministry of Defense spokesperson said, "We have always said there is no military solution in Afghanistan. Insurgencies are ultimately solved at the political level, not by military means alone."

The conundrum confronting Afghanistan is the same one that confronts Iraq. On the one hand, counterinsurgency requires a military component. The history of successful counterinsurgency – largely practiced by the British – requires 20 troops per 1,000 civilians. To the extent that the surge in Iraq has been successful in at least temporarily quelling the violence, one of the reasons is because the troop to civilian ratio in Baghdad (where the surge was focused) was about right – about 160,000 troops to 5.7 million residents (about 28 troops per 1,000 civilians). The force requirement for Afghanistan (population about 32 million) would be 640,000 troops – certainly a bridge too far. If operations were focused on Kabul (population about 3 million), the number of troops needed would be a more manageable 60,000 soldiers.

But troop levels are not all that matters. Successful counterinsurgency often times requires the use of harsh and indiscriminate military force – again, the British example is a good one, such as putting down the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. We have witnessed some of that with US bombing campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan. While such action may kill the enemy, it also all too often results in killing innocent civilians – no matter how hard we try to avoid collateral damage. Such was the case last August – the US military has recently admitted that an air strike that killed 25 Taliban fighters also killed 33 civilians. The inevitable result is alienation of the civilian population, which makes them more sympathetic to the insurgents. Indeed, this is one of the most important lessons of the Vietnam War.

The problem in Afghanistan (and Iraq) is that foreign military occupation – while perhaps the correct tactical military solution to counter the violence – is strategically a mistake. Foreign occupation reinforces the perception that the Afghan government is being propped up by and a puppet of the United States rather than a sovereign government of a Muslim country. And just as it has been (and will continue to be) in Iraq, an occupying force in Afghanistan is a magnet for jihad (the same experience of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s).

So despite Obama’s and McCain’s wishful thinking about achieving military victory in Afghanistan, Brigadier Carleton-Smith’s sober assessment is right. Why? Because successful counterinsurgency requires more than just a military solution – it requires a political solution. Again, the British experience is important because this is the lesson of the Belfast Agreement – the Irish Republican Army was not defeated, but a peace was achieved via negotiation. (It is also worth noting that the British Army spent 38 years in Northern Ireland – which should serve as a reality check for both Iraq and Afghanistan).

The question is whether the next president of the United States will allow the Karzai government (or his successor) to engage in the kind of negotiations needed to forge a political solution in Afghanistan. The Bush administration has insisted on having a strong central government in Kabul, but the history of successful governance in Afghanistan is a relatively weak central government sharing power with regional governors (a nice term for warlords). More importantly, would the US allow negotiations with the Taliban? The current mindset is that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are one in the same. That was certainly true in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But the current incarnation of the Taliban bears more of a resemblance to Moqtada al-Sadr in Iraq – largely opposed to foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

So if Afghanistan cannot be won, can it be lost? The answer is yes. Although victory can never be guaranteed, the way to avoid losing is the same as in Iraq. We must understand foreign military occupation – however well intended and however successful at the tactical, operational level – is not the solution and actually part of the problem because of the resentment it creates (not just with the Afghan population but also the larger Muslim world). We must be true to our own principle of self-determination and be willing to allow the Afghan government be a truly sovereign government and make decisions for itself – even if they are not the same decisions we would make. And even if things don’t turn out the way we would like them to in Afghanistan, i.e., victory, our only real criteria should be that the government in Afghanistan – even if it includes the Taliban – not provide support or safe haven for al-Qaeda.

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.