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.

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.

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.

This latter phrasing is certainly the way that any sensible president—the person who decides whether to commit more of the nation's blood and treasure to a war—would have to read that sentence. His military commander on the ground is telling him that if he doesn't send more troops, he'll lose—but if he does send more troops, he still might lose.

McChrystal's point is that it's not simply "resources," not just U.S. and NATO troops, that will settle the war. It's also whether the Afghan government earns the trust of its people—whether the Afghan president and his entourage of ministers, governors, and warlords are willing—or are willing to be lured—to clean up their act, end their corrupt practices, and truly serve their people.

When Obama says he needs to review the strategy before he decides on troop levels, he almost certainly means that he needs to assess whether a counterinsurgency strategy makes sense if the Afghan government—the entity that our troops would be propping up and aligning themselves with—is viewed by a wide swath of its own people as illegitimate.

Obama committed himself to a new strategy for Afghanistan this past March. He is now wavering, not so much because many congressional Democrats and a majority of the American people have turned against the war. (Congress would almost certainly vote in favor of appropriations, just as it did in the bleakest days of the Iraq war, if just to "support the troops," and a successful battle or two might well turn public opinion.)

Rather, the big new thing that's happened since March—in fact, since McChrystal and his staff prepared their memo over the summer—is the Afghan presidential election, which, it's turned out, was marred by fraud on a monumental scale, nearly all of it on behalf of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. Even so, Karzai seems to have barely tipped the 50 percent required to avoid a second-round runoff. If he is declared the winner and offers nothing to the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah, popular trust in his government will slide still further—and the prospects for a successful counterinsurgency campaign will slide with it.

In other words, Obama is right to hold off on making such a huge decision. He's right to wait and see how the Afghan election plays out and how Karzai behaves in its aftermath. The McChrystal memo emphasizes that the only reason for sending more troops is to implement the new strategy. "Without a new strategy," he writes, "the mission should not be resourced"—that is, no more troops should be sent. The same is true if the new strategy has scant hope of succeeding.

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