The debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan has never been about the importance of the mission. It's been about whether sending more troops will make much difference.
This distinction came up this morning, just briefly, at hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The agenda was to confirm the witness, Adm. Michael Mullen, for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a motion that will almost certainly be approved unanimously). But the main topic of discussion was Afghanistan.
The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has proposed speeding up the training of the Afghan National Army before deploying any more of our own men and women in uniform. Adm. Mullen and many of Levin's colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, countered that mere training wasn't enough to reverse the Taliban's momentum on the battlefield.
However, the unlikely figure of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised the key issue of the day. He began his questioning of Adm. Mullen by asking whether the Taliban had any tanks. No, Mullen replied. Graham then asked how many airplanes they have. None, the admiral answered, perhaps wondering where this line of inquiry was going.
Then Graham zeroed in. If that's the case, he asked, how is it that the Taliban are gaining ground? The problem isn't the Taliban, it's the Afghan government, isn't that right?
Mullen agreed. The problem, he said, "is clearly the lack of legitimacy of the government."
Graham pushed the matter. "We could send a million troops, and that wouldn't restore legitimacy in the government?" he asked.
Mullen replied, "That is correct."
A few minutes later, under questioning from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mullen elaborated: "The Afghan government needs to have some legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The core issue is the corruption. … It's been a way of life for some time, and it's just got to change. That threat is every bit as significant as the Taliban."
This is not a peripheral matter. It's central to the conflict and to the U.S. military mission. President Barack Obama and his battlefield commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, have laid out a new strategy for Afghanistan, based on the classic principles of counterinsurgency (COIN). The strategic objective is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who might endanger the United States and its allies. However, under COIN doctrine, the best way to achieve this objective is not to chase the Taliban and other insurgents around the countryside and the mountain paths but, rather, to protect the Afghan population.
Adm. Mullen put it this way in his opening statement this morning:
The enemy in Afghanistan is not the insurgents. The enemy is fear. If you can remove the fear under which so many Afghans live, if you can supplant it with security and good governance, then you can offer them an alternative to Taliban rule, and if they have an alternative to Taliban rule, they will choose it.