John Nagl on Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 7 months ago

At a New York Times blog John Nagl weighs in on Afghanistan.

In 2007, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, was very blunt before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He admitted, “In Iraq, we do what we must.” Of America’s other war, he said, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can.”

Doing what we can has been insufficient in Afghanistan. Fortunately, an improving security situation and an increasingly capable Iraqi government now allow the United States to shift the balance of effort east, to America’s forgotten war.

This shift comes in the nick of time. The Taliban has been growing stronger in the poorly administered Pashtun tribal areas on either side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Last year was the bloodiest year on record for the international coalition, and service in Afghanistan is far more dangerous on a per-soldier basis than is service in Iraq. It is clearly time for a change in strategy.

The essence of success is counterinsurgency, which requires boots on the ground, and plenty of them — 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 people, or some 600,000 for all of Afghanistan, a country larger and more populous than Iraq. The additional 30,000 American forces on tap for deployment to Afghanistan over the next year are sorely needed, but obviously insufficient to protect all 30 million people in the country.

However, insurgencies are not defeated by foreign forces. They are defeated by the security services of the afflicted nation. Thus the long-term answer to the Taliban’s insurgency has to be a much expanded Afghan National Army. Currently 70,000 and projected to grow to 135,000, the Afghan army is the most respected institution in that troubled country. It may need to reach 250,000, and be supported by a similarly sized police force, to provide the security that will cause the Taliban to wither. Building such an Afghan Army will be a long-term effort that will require American equipment and advisers for many years, but since the Afghans can field about 70 troops for the cost of one deployed American soldier, there is no faster, cheaper or better way to win.

Would it hurt Nagl’s reputation for The Captain’s Journal to agree?  We might quibble slightly over the number of troops (Nagl hits the high side), and Afghanistan is a campaign that will evolve in the coming months.  We’ll see if it really takes that many.  But we have argued for more troops for over a year, along with the jettisoning of the notion that we can engineer a cheap “awakening” to prevent the necessity of actually conducting COIN.

As for the idea of reliance on the Afghan Army, recall what we said in The Likely Failure of Tribal Miltias in Afghanistan, where we point out the population had the highest confidence in the Afghan Army and lowest in tribal fighters.  Nagl is right.  The Army (and to a lesser degree the Afghan National Police) are our best bet for pacification of the countryside.

There is another entry in this same post that deserves a few words, that being from Parag Khanna.

Even if an additional 30,000 American and NATO troops were deployed in southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban problem would not be reduced. It would merely be pushed back over the Pakistan border, destabilizing Pakistan’s already volatile North-West Frontier Province, which itself is more populous than Iraq. This amounts to squeezing a balloon on one end to inflate it on the other.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and this argument amounts to nothing more than the idea that we cannot militarily defeat the Taliban because they cannot be cordoned.  While the SOF high value target campaign with small footprint and low force projection cannot stop the ingress and egress of fighters, an adequate increase in the number of troops can indeed be successful, at least in terms of a deliberate, methodical approach to counterinsurgency.  The Afghan Taliban and the TTP both clearly believe that the first fight is their jihad is the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The refusal to engage Syria and Iran concerning the influx of fighters into Iraq was problematic, and it is true enough that Pakistan must be engaged sooner or later, whether by soft power, additional resources, political and diplomatic pressure, targeted raids and UAV strikes, and even eventually military operations if necessary.  But the first step is to increase troop presence in Afghanistan.  There is no need to engage in endless debates over Pakistan when the first steps haven’t even been taken for Afghanistan.

This is not a call to neglect regional strategy.  But it is a call to prevent the desire for perfection from being the enemy of progress.  We endorse Nagl’s counsel concerning Afghanistan, and he will just have to live down the connection with us.




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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,John Nagl and was published January 27th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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