Following up Smith’s commentaty Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis on Going Deep Rather Than Long in Afghanistan, Davis posts the following rejoinder.
I recently received a very kind invitation from Herschel Smith to reply to a posting he recently made of a report on strategy analysis and recommendations i wrote earlier this month. He wrote, “I’m sure that you don’t appreciate one bit my excoriation of your views. I expect a full throated response, and will approve whatever comment you make.” I must say that his willingness to actively invite me to write a “full throated” response to his posting is one of the reasons I hold this web site in such high esteem and only wish other venues for the forging of ideas were held to such equally high standards.
In my view, one of the biggest weaknesses of our country’s intellectual elite today is an arrogance that holds there is only one answer to any question: mine! Once a writer or opinion-maker stakes out his or her view, all dissenters are painted as fools or idiots because no alteration of their stated views could possibly be right! Rather, I hold that there are many smart people in this country, irrespective of their race, political persuasion, gender, age, or social position, most of whom are genuinely and passionately love America. But not one of them has the corner on all the best ideas.
Regarding the report i wrote on Afghanistan, I obviously believe that I have some darn good ideas or I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of publishing them, particularly when i know they are contrary to some other pretty high ranking and well known people. But my expectation is that other smart people could undoubtedly add to my good ideas and in other cases help illumine why something isn’t so good as i thought once a new piece of heretofore unknown piece of information is provided. That’s why I really admire this web site.
So many of the readers of this blog have tremendous combat experience as well as institutional knowledge which in many cases far outstrips some of our national civilian and uniformed leaders. Your views and opinions carry a lot of weight. Conversely, however, while some of us have a lot of tactical experience we don’t have the broad knowledge and experience on higher levels that some of the less experienced leaders do have. If we could get the higher up folks to have an open mind about the on-the-ground experience of the tactical group, and the latter group to be willing to consider the larger, associated strategic views of the former group, the end result could be something damn good!
So in that light, I do offer some comments to Mr. Smith’s “excoriation” of my views, but also just as eagerly request some of you to reply to this exchange to pass along information which could either bolster an idea – or new info which could shoot it down. The bottom line in this mess that is Afghanistan, there is no “good” solution; it’s just a matter of which one carries the least number and degree of negative consequences.
One of the biggest complaints of Mr. Smith’s posting was the apparent contradiction my paper showed. First, he notes:
“On the other hand, he feels that is is necessary to address the objection that a return to Taliban control would mean a return to safe haven for al Qaeda. But if it’s true that his plan would prevent a return to Taliban control, and also if it’s true that occupying forces give the Taliban their currency (and without us they wouldn’t have a raison d’être), then it shouldn’t be necessary to predict what would happen if the Taliban returned to power.”
Not so. As I point out in the paper, it is very much necessary to point out the potential negative consequences. Too often people suggest their plan is better than others out there by detailing the negative consequences that would befall us if we followed the flawed plan, but then present their views as though there are no negative possibilities; that “if we only followed my plan, all would be good!” Rather, I feel it is responsible and necessary to discuss the pros and cons of my ideas. Given that I am recommending that 18 months after implementing my plan we redeploy the bulk of our combat troops, I want to address what would happen if a ‘worst-case-scenario’ happened and the Kabul government fell and Taliban returned to power (more on that in a moment). So it is no contradiction, but is instead a responsible requirement to point out potential negatives.
Second he writes, “On the one hand the corrupt ANA and ANP are one of the biggest problems (and to be fair, our own coverage of ANA and ANP has been unforgiving, but still truthful). On the other hand, reliance on them along with some HVT strikes by SOF is the cornerstone of his plan.” Indeed I do suggest we rely on them. But the given that they are weak and corrupt is why later in my report i recommend that we keep the number of ANSF at currently approved numbers and aggressively train them to be able to more capable rather than jacking their numbers up to 400,000 which would certainly result in higher numbers of equally incapable ‘partners.’
Next Mr. Smith posts, “On the one hand, Davis observes that we don’t have enough troops to secure Afghanistan, noting the large scale engagements such as the battle of Wanat (see our own article on battles in Nuristan and Wanat in the context of massing of enemy troops). On the other hand, a smaller ANA and fewer U.S. troops are somehow superior to what we now have and would be able to hold the terrain.” Nowhere in my report do I say or suggest that with fewer troops we’d be able to “hold terrain.” Rather, I wrote:
“One of the unquestioned assumptions is that if we send 40,000 more combat troops we will gain the upper hand against the insurgent forces. I contend it is not the iron-clad truth most believe. By sending in large numbers of “foreign” troops, we unwittingly play directly into the historic fears of the Afghan people and appear to validate the Taliban’s IO campaign. Evidence suggests many of the insurgent fighters gain their reason for living from our presence and from fighting us. They possess the ability to view themselves in heroic, patriotic ways in this existential struggle, much as did the Partisan movements in France, Yugoslavia, and White Russia during World War II. The underground fighters of World War II were willing to endure any hardship, pay any price, and sacrifice their lives to gain their freedom. We must deny the Taliban this huge psychological advantage.”
Shorn of large numbers of American troops in isolated bases throughout the country, the Taliban lose targets to engage and the motivation to influence others to join their cause. If there is no “occupation” to resist, where is the reason to keep fighting? The initial reaction many would have to that is, “Good grief! Without our forces there, they’d just take over!” But would they? The reason many fight for the Taliban today is to fight against the United States, and most of the Taliban support comes from regular citizens. Again, absent the motivation to fight against the US, their motivation to fight for the Taliban goes way down. Remember, there was no love for the way the Taliban ruled with an iron hand prior to October 2001 – and the regular people of Afghanistan certainly do remember that today. So i posit that it is a risk, but one we can live with for reason discussed below.
Next I’ll summarize a few of the criticisms Mr. Smith posed, replying to them generally. He raises a number of very valid comments on the difficulty of logistics and transport. These are very vexing issues which will exist no matter which course of action the President approves. Under a Go Big there will be more troops to provide security – but also significantly more targets the Taliban can attack. Under Go Deep the reverse is true. The redeployment of the bulk of US conventional forces doesn’t mean all forces leave. Further, that makes our effort to train the ANSF to acceptable levels rises in importance. But the bottom line is that there will be risk to any course of action.
We often fail to adequately consider the role played here by the enemy. The deciding factors aren’t just whether or how many US Troops remain in Afghanistan or what they do. Regardless of what we want to do the enemy will seek to do all they can to mess it up. They want to kill us and they want to drive us out and whether it’s Go Big, Go Deep or something else, as long as we are there they will aggressively try to defeat our plans. So again, the issue for us is which risk is the most manageable and which ‘worst case scenarios’ are we able to live with. In my view, the worst of a Go Deep is manageable while the worst of Go Big could be disastrous.
Finally, Mr. Smith says, “The reality of the situation is that going deep is not an option, but rather, a daydream. “Going deep” is a nicely packaged strategy for failure. There is going big or going home.” This is purely a personal opinion. I contend that the facts as laid out throughout my report refute Mr. Smith’s charge, but he is certainly welcome to his personal opinion.
I would like to end by addressing one of the central issues of this entire debate regarding the number of troops recommended for Go Big and what they could accomplish. As a hook, I’ll address an article from today’s (22 October 2009) Washington Post.
On today’s front page, above the fold Washington Post (In Helmand, a model for success?), there is a story by Rajiv Chandrasekaran about a possible template for success in Afghanistan that could portend success if McChrystal’s strategy is followed. This article illuminates some of the most crucial parts of my report and helps convey why i believe Go Big, aside from what we would all wish to happen, would be very unlikely to succeed.
In today’s article Rajiv wrote:
“But even if Nawa remains peaceful, replicating what has occurred here may not be possible. Achieving the same troop-to-population ratio in other insurgent strongholds across southern and eastern Afghanistan would require at least 100,000 more U.S. or NATO troops — more than double the 40,000 being sought by McChrystal — as well as many thousands of additional Afghan security forces… Then, three months ago, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment arrived. To U.S. commanders, the change in Nawa is the result of overwhelming force and overhauled battlefield strategy. The combined strength of U.S. and Afghan security forces in the district is now about 1,500 for a population of about 75,000 — exactly the 1-to-50 ratio prescribed by U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine.”
But note what’s not described: any forces for training. Rajiv notes that we would need over 100,000 troops just to perform the security mission. Now look back to the section in my report where the same figure of 100,000 was mentioned, but note the function of those troops:
“To most, 40,000 additional troops seem like a large number, particularly when compared to the 20,000 of the Iraq surge, but according to high ranking officers who have previously commanded combat troops in Afghanistan, 40,000 is not enough. Marine Colonel Dale Alford said at a September counterinsurgency conference in Washington that it would require somewhere on the order of 10 brigades just to train the Afghan National Police (ANP) and another eight to work with the Afghan National Army (ANA) – on top of what we have today (p.8).”
In Rajiv’s correct accounting, it would take approximately 100,000 fighting troops to do the security mission to the same level of effectiveness as described in Nawa, plus the 10 brigades to train the ANP and eight brigades to train the ANA. And for how many years would you need so many people? How long will Nawa survive in its current stable state without the presence of those 1,100 Marines? One of the biggest condemnations of the long term viability of this strategy is seen in this passage:
“The insurgents who left Nawa in July now operate from in and around the town of Marja, 10 miles away, amid a series of north-south canals carved into the sandy desert by the U.S. government in the 1950s and ’60s as a way to counter Soviet influence in Afghanistan. The canals helped turn the Helmand River valley into Afghanistan’s breadbasket. But wheat fields have been replaced by the highest concentration of opium-producing poppies in Helmand, and the canals now serve as defensive moats that U.S. combat vehicles cannot cross, protecting the drug smugglers and insurgents who have taken shelter there. “Nawa is only going to get so far as long as their next-door neighbor is Marja,” said Brig. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, the top Marine commander in Helmand. But clearing out Marja would require more troops than the Marines currently have in Afghanistan.”
Even the success wrought by over a thousand Marines can only scatter the enemy a mere 10 miles away. That’s the distance between the Pentagon and the I495/I395 mixing bowl in DC! In order to clear all the enemy out of the area of Nawa and neighboring Marja, however, we’d need more Marines than we have in all of Afghanistan! The obvious next question: if it took so many troops to clear and hold that one small piece of the country, how will you secure the rest of the country? If the insurgent enemy remains safe a scant 10 miles from an entire Marine combat battalion, how much of a success would we gain even if we did consolidate all the Marines in Afghanistan to clear and hold those two areas?
The facts on the ground here emphatically support the thesis of my report: it would take more troops than the US has in its active duty force to properly clear and hold – and concurrently train the ANSF – the country (while also meeting other world-wide requirements). If we send the 40,000 troops and embark on a COIN strategy, we will see the Nawa pattern repeated in islands throughout the country. Where you send in such overwhelming force and conduct such aggressive patrolling schedules (as mentioned in Rajiv’s story), you’ll be able to clear and hold it from the enemy. But around those islands the Taliban will simply scoot out 10 to 20 miles and set up shop again, and continue to use hit and run tactics on those additional troops, and concurrently live with virtual impunity in the thousands of other villages and towns where no NATO troops will live.
But again I ask the question: what would those insurgent fighters do if all our combat troops redeployed from Afghanistan? The most common answer – like that given by NATO Commander Rasmussen yesterday – is that “if the Taliban take power tomorrow, terrorism can prosper and one day or another will strike all western democracies.” But I think the history of Afghan tribal politics following the British withdrawal in 1842 and the Soviets in 1988 shows that the unity they now enjoy as a result of their focus on attacking and driving out the American invader will evaporate with the removal of the foreign troop presence.
Also it is key to point out that today the insurgents exist as a shadowy, elusive force that we cannot effectively destroy because we cannot effectively find them. The day they take power and exist in the open – and in large, concentrated locations – they become lucrative targets for Western military might and again become enormously vulnerable to our greatest technological strengths (precision weapons). On that day we have meaningful leverage over them that would mitigate against their giving safe haven to a resurgent AQ: why would they fight 10 years to get back in power only to again take the very same action that resulted in their destruction the first time, knowing that they would still be utterly powerless to stop our precision attacks?
It doesn’t matter if we think it’s a grand idea to “defeat” the Taliban or not. Given the stark realities of the limited number of active duty troops the United States possesses, how many of them it would take to “defeat” the insurgency, and for how many years they be garrisoned there; not to mention the geography of the country, the resilience of the enemy fighters – and the absence of any geostrategic importance such a barren country has for us (outside of our interest in attacking any and all terrorist threats against our country which applies everywhere in the world such a threat might metastasize) – we can’t accomplish that tactical task within given resources.
What we must do, then, is to accomplish the driving strategic imperative – to identify, track, and destroy all terrorist organizations and individuals who seek to harm the US or its interests – in a way that can succeed with the resources we have and under conditions presented. My “Go Deep” plan offers one viable possibility. There are obviously others. But I ask this final question in closing:
What is the likely outcome, given all the foregoing information, if we cling stubbornly to our desire to destroy the Taliban and “win” in Afghanistan by deploying those 40,000 troops? I believe the most likely outcome would be the expenditure of enormous amounts of money, an increase in the rate of degradation of our Armed Forces, an increase in the strength and effectiveness of the insurgent forces, a continual stream of American blood draining into the Afghan dirt as casualties mount, and ultimately, after the loss of public support in Western nations – most notably ours – we withdrawal in humiliation that even our best marketing experts won’t be able to disguise.
That’s my view anyway! Would love to hear yours…