Why We Need More Troops in Afghanistan
President Obama has declared Afghanistan his national security priority. He has changed both the strategy there and the leadership. This spring he said that "for six years, Afghanistan has been denied the resources that it demands because of the war in Iraq. Now, we must make a commitment that can accomplish our goals." The new commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is assessing the situation and the requirements for success. It is too soon to know what he might ask for, but any sound strategy to achieve the president's stated goals will require more forces.
I recently returned from second trip to Afghanistan. Having studied the demographics and potential effects of a surge in Iraq as well as here, I think those who resist sending more troops must answer a question: Why would counterinsurgency in Afghanistan be easier? It seems pretty hard. Afghanistan is significantly larger and more populous than Iraq, for example. Its compartmentalized terrain hinders the movement of forces and resources. The fragmented nature of Afghan society keeps "ink spots" of security success from spreading. The enemy's attacks are not as spectacular as they were in Iraq, but its operations are sophisticated and effective.
U.S. Army doctrine calls for one counterinsurgent for every 50 people. The Afghan insurgency is confined to the Pashtun and some mixed areas of the country -- perhaps 16 million people requiring about 320,000 counterinsurgent troops. U.S., international and Afghan forces will total around 275,000 by the end of this year, or roughly 45,000 below the doctrinal norm. In reality, most of the Afghan police are ineffective at best, and several thousand coalition forces are legally prevented from fighting. The actual gap between the forces we have in Afghanistan and what doctrine recommends is significantly higher.
In fact, we may not need as many counterinsurgency troops in Afghanistan as doctrine would dictate, but we need more than we have. Almost certainly we do not need 45,000 more. Forces do not need to be everywhere. Counterinsurgency units must focus on areas critical to the enemy and to the host government. Sprinkling troops throughout the population (as the current ISAF deployment does) is bad strategy. But even reorienting those forces we have in Afghanistan will not permit decisive operations in important areas.
Yet the administration faces pressure not to send additional forces rapidly or in numbers that could be decisive. It is to be hoped that this administration will avoid the errors of the early Bush years and the tendency toward incrementalism and compromise. Military strategy is not about pleasing the most constituencies but, rather, doing what is necessary to defeat an uncompromising enemy. President Obama declared his commitment to do that in March. Now he must follow through.
The writer, a resident scholar and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, served on Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Initial Assessment Group. The views expressed here are his alone.