There's a lot more to the Afghan strategy than how many troops we send.

Military analysis.
Sept. 22 2009 5:26 PM

It's Not About the Troops

Only a legitimate Afghan government can beat the Taliban.

Marines in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
Marines in Afghanistan

The push is on for President Barack Obama to send more troops to Afghanistan, perhaps as many as 40,000 more. Boxing in Obama was almost certainly the aim of whoever gave the Washington Post's Bob Woodward a copy of the 66-page internal memo by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan

Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Most of the news stories about the memo have emphasized its conclusion that, without more U.S. troops, the war will probably be lost to the Taliban. But the memo (reprinted in full on the Post's Web site) says many other things, too. In fact, high up in his report, McChrystal emphasizes that focusing only on troop requirements "misses the point entirely."

The point that this focus misses, the general writes, is that this is a war against insurgencies and therefore requires "a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign," in which the main objective is not so much to destroy the enemy but rather to protect the Afghan people—to provide them with security so that the Afghan government can deliver basic services.

When it comes to defeating the Taliban, the memo adds, a "responsive and accountable government"—one "that the Afghan people find acceptable"—is every bit as important as a secure environment.

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In fact, the memo defines defeating the insurgency as "a condition where the insurgency no longer threatens the viability of the state." In this sense, the mission faces two threats: first, the insurgents themselves; second, a "crisis of popular confidence," owing to the "weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power brokers, [and] widespread corruption by various officials," all of which "have given Afghans little reason to support their government" or to trust that their government can provide security, justice, and basic services—a failure that lays "fertile ground for the insurgency."

The Afghan people's allegiance is the object of this war. They aren't choosing between the Taliban and the U.S.-NATO coalition but, rather, between the Taliban and the Afghan government on whose behalf the coalition is fighting. As McChrystal's memo puts it, the war's focus, like that of any classic counterinsurgency campaign, is "the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population, by, with, and through the Afghan government." (Italics added.)

This echoes the observation made by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his Sept. 15 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., why the Taliban are winning, even though they're militarily inferior to U.S. and NATO forces, Mullen replied that the problem is "clearly the lack of legitimacy of the government." Graham asked, "We could send a million troops, and that wouldn't restore legitimacy in the government?" Mullen replied, "That is correct."

(McChrystal's memo is dated Aug. 30, so Mullen probably based his own comments on its analysis.)

This, then, is the dilemma that President Obama is facing: not whether to send more troops (if that were the only issue, the answer would be fairly clear) but rather whether sending more troops will make much difference.

At one point, euphemistically referring to troops as "resources," McChrystal writes, "Resources will not win the war, but under-resourcing could lose it." Another way to read this sentence is: Under-resourcing could lose the war, but more resources won't necessarily win it, either.