It's time to start getting nervous about Afghanistan.
In recent days, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has talked about doubling the number of U.S. troops in the country from 30,000 to 60,000—way more than the three brigades (roughly 12,000 extra troops) that Barack Obama endorsed on the campaign trail.
A case could be made that reinforcements are needed. But it's not clear—to anyone, including many officers—whether this will mark the pivotal boost or the start of a quagmire.
The good news is that, seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and nearly three years after the resumption of full-scale war with the Taliban, we are finally beginning to formulate a strategy—and we have officers in place who think strategically.
As history shows, however, smart generals and shrewd strategists don't necessarily yield victory—especially in Afghanistan.
The biggest problem is that the country's fate ultimately lies outside its borders. As long as Pakistan's northwest territories remain a lawless free-for-all, with Taliban and al-Qaida fighters crossing the border at will, Afghanistan will never be stable. And as long as Pakistan faces a threat from India to the east, its leaders will never deploy enough troops to quash the insurgents in the northwest territories.
In short, we could do everything perfectly in Afghanistan, but it wouldn't matter unless the region-wide conflicts could be brought under some control.
Again, the good news is that all the relevant players—President-elect Obama, Adm. Mullen, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Gen. David Petraeus, and their top aides—understand this. But knowing the dimensions of a problem is only the first step to solving it. And each one of this problem's aspects—countering the insurgency in Afghanistan, stabilizing Pakistan, and calming tensions between Pakistan and India—is very difficult.
The problem of Afghanistan is the easiest—or at least the easiest to calculate—in the sense that it's to some extent susceptible to military power. But, as Gates and Petraeus have said several times, it's not entirely a military problem; there can be no "victory" in the standard meaning of the word. A good ending, if there is one, will involve a negotiated settlement in which "reconcilable" Taliban—those who joined the insurgency for nonideological reasons—are lured over to the Afghan government's side.
This is why, according to today's Wall Street Journal, top U.S. officers are starting to aid local militias in the fight against the Taliban. This approach has the merit of realism: Afghanistan is a tribal society; power is focused on the militias; securing the population, at this point, can be done only through them.
However, we're not going to win over any chieftains unless we can demonstrate that we might win. This is the main reason for a boost—nobody's calling it a "surge"—in U.S. troop levels. We need some quick tactical victories against the Taliban. Air power can't do it: Bombing kills too many civilians; and that turns the Afghan people against us, against the Afghan government, and toward the insurgents. So more ground forces are the only way.
But three caveats are worth noting. First, as Dexter Filkins reports in his excellent book The Forever War, Afghan militias are notorious opportunists; they switch sides at the slightest shift—in who's winning or who's paying more—or sometimes just at whim. They might be won over, but maybe not for long.
Second, even 60,000 U.S. troops aren't enough to win over all the tribes and militias, much less to stabilize the whole country. It's only enough, at best, to secure a few more towns, to close off a few more border crossings, and to clobber a few more Taliban units. The hope is that some high-profile successes will set in motion a cascade of further successes, brought on by alliances with the Afghans themselves.
But if the cascade isn't triggered—because the successes don't happen, or because they're not big enough, or because they're nullified by more incursions from Pakistan, or for whatever reason—will President Obama be pressured to throw in more troops? (We can almost imagine the briefing: "Just three more brigades will do the trick, Mr. President.")
It is worth noting that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reacted coolly to the idea of 30,000 more U.S. troops. Some dismiss his public disaffection as political posturing; they note that Karzai faces a presidential election this spring and so doesn't want to look like a stooge of foreign occupiers. But if that's the case, it means that a lot—maybe a majority—of the Afghan people view us as foreign occupiers, like the Russians and British before us, and that a higher-profile presence may turn them against both us and our sponsor, Karzai.
A counterinsurgency campaign has no chance of succeeding, if we—and, by extension, the government that we're supporting—are seen as the enemy.
And so there is a paradox: More U.S. troops are needed to provide security to the Afghan people; but these troops may, at the same time, fuel the insurgency—which will require more troops, and on the cycle goes.
One possible way to short-circuit this cycle is to demonstrate a few quick and easy successes. For instance, rush a flood of troops to a town that is not under grave threat from the Taliban at the moment and provide it with lots of services—roads, electricity, food, whatever aid is needed. At the same time, rush another flood of troops to an area of marginal Taliban control and crush them. And do all this without killing any civilians.
If this can be managed, the question will remain: What next? But in a contest for popular support, first impressions are important—and, with a new administration, there may still be a chance for first impressions.
Obama has said that we have "limited goals" in Afghanistan. He hasn't defined the term precisely, but it's clear that he suffers from no illusions that a Western-style democracy is imminent. (As a senior NATO officer said a few years ago, the country's barely post-medieval.) He has said that the main goal is to prevent it from once again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists who seek to attack the United States and its allies. But how do you prevent that? How secure, and how free of insurgents, does how much of Afghanistan have to be? How many troops and bases are required to ensure that? There are people in the Defense Department whose job is to make these "requirements" as immense or as minimal as possible.
Meanwhile, the basic principles of counterinsurgency should be kept in mind. The point of these sorts of wars is not so much to defeat the enemy as to protect and win over the population; the former can happen only if the latter happens first.
It's possible that, despite all the smart strategists and the more sincere effort, the campaign simply won't work; most counterinsurgency efforts don't. In that case, President Obama's challenge will be to resist the pressures to stay locked in and to escalate, for the sake of perceptions, credibility, or false hope.