Why We Can’t Win in Afghanistan

To borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning… let me count the ways.

First and foremost, we don’t have enough troops. (Yes, yes, I know I’m a broken record to regular Antiwar.com readers.) The accepted standard for successful counterinsurgency operations is 20 soldiers per 1,000 civilians (recognized in the COIN – counterinsurgency – manual written in large part by Gen. David Petraeus, now head of U.S. Central Command). The population of Afghanistan is 32 million, which translates to a force requirement of 640,000 troops – more than the total number of U.S. Army active-duty soldiers. The current combined NATO and U.S. force size is about 140,000 troops – only enough to occupy Kabul and perhaps two or three provinces (leaving 30 provinces unoccupied).

Second, we do not have the political will (nor should we unless the very survival of our nation is at stake, which it isn’t in Afghanistan) to engage in the harsh – and often indiscriminate – tactics necessary to put down an insurgency. The inconvenient truth about counterinsurgency is it usually means having to kill a lot of people, with inevitable collateral civilian casualties. The British, often thought of as the best in conducting counterinsurgency, had to use such methods to crush the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Such tactics in Afghanistan would only increase resistance and fuel the insurgency – not to mention increasing anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world.

Third, we don’t have the patience. Successful counterinsurgency is a long and painful road to travel. The British spent seven years in Kenya fighting the Mau Mau insurgents and more than 20 years in Malaysia battling the Malayan National Liberation Army. The United States has been in Afghanistan eight years now. Particularly with the continued uncertainty about economic recovery, it’s unlikely that the American people will be willing to stay the course forever – more so if U.S. casualties climb (the number of U.S. dead hit the 1,000 mark when seven U.S. troops were killed – five in a massive Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul – earlier this week). And then there is the reality that the occupier must always leave, and there is no guarantee that whatever success may have been achieved during occupation will hold afterward.

Fourth, we are conducting military operations in the name of a notoriously corrupt government that does not have widespread support among the people of Afghanistan. According to a Pentagon report released in April, “the population sympathizes with or supports the Afghan government in 24 percent (29 of 121) of all Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the population supports the insurgents, but it does mean we are backing an unpopular horse. We tried that in Vietnam with the Diem regime, and it didn’t work out so well. It also means that the population is more susceptible to being won over by the insurgents since they have no natural affinity for the standing government.

Fifth – in another case of déjà vu all over again vis-à-vis Vietnam – the insurgents have sanctuary in Pakistan. We weren’t able to deny the NVA sanctuary in Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War, and our options to do the same to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan are less than attractive. Probably the only way to have high confidence of denying sanctuary in Pakistan is to invade and end up owning yet another Muslim country. Needless to say, we don’t have the military forces necessary for such an invasion. More importantly, occupying another Muslim country would be confirmation that we are engaged in a war against Islam – not likely to help win the hearts and minds of the nearly 1 billion Muslims in the world, including American Muslims. We could carpet-bomb western Pakistan in an effort to destroy sanctuary areas and break the will of the people providing sanctuary – but that probably would not be viewed kindly by the Pakistani government and would ultimately result in killing innocent Muslims. The least bad of the not very good options is to let the Pakistani government deal with the situation, which means not deal with it very well if at all. However, as long as the al-Qaeda and Taliban threat emanating from Pakistan is local and not global, i.e., a direct threat to America, a less than satisfactory situation is what we may have to learn to live with.

Finally, there is this:

This is an actual PowerPoint slide shown by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, last summer to portray the complexity of U.S. strategy. What it really demonstrates – beyond “PowerPoint makes us stupid,” according to Gen. James N. Mattis of the Marine Corps – is the impossibility of U.S. strategy. There are too many moving pieces with multiple inter-relationships to be able to control them all. And – like a kaleidoscope – a small change to one thing changes everything else unpredictably and a completely new pattern emerges.

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.