War Stories

What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

We’re still figuring that out.

A U.S. Marine in Afghanistan

Not long ago, Afghanistan was known as “the good war.” Now some are calling it “Obama’s Vietnam.” Both tags exaggerate. Across hundreds of years of sorrowful history, no war in Afghanistan has ever been good. And Vietnam was different in so many ways that parallels with the war against the Taliban tend to muddy more than clarify. (Ho Chi Minh was the legitimate leader of a unified polity, the United States violated international law by blocking countrywide elections, U.S. troop levels grew to 500,000 at their peak, etc.)

But the specter of Vietnam does, or should, haunt us in one compelling sense: the reasonable fear that we are about to step into a bigger, thicker pile of mud—a more all-enveloping quagmire, if you will—than the first step of escalation might suggest.

Unlike those who got us into Vietnam, today’s top officials—including President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates—at least see the specter. Both have emphasized that their goals in Afghanistan are limited; daydreams of turning the place into a democratic republic—”some central Asian Valhalla,” as Gates snorted in recent hearings—are over. Gates further stated at those hearings, before the Senate armed services committee, that he would endorse his commanders’ request for three additional brigades—but that he’d be “deeply skeptical” of subsequent requests for more. The fighting needs to be done mainly by Afghan troops, he said, adding that if the Afghan people begin to see it as an American war, “we will go the way of other imperial occupiers.”

This is reassuring. However, even “limited” goals can justify a vast military expansion.

For instance, Obama and Gates have said that their “strategic objective” is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States or destabilize the region.

However, military commanders need to translate that strategic objective into an “operational goal,” and there are many, very different ways to do that—each requiring different levels of troops performing very different missions.

Some argue that the best way is to step up attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida forces directly, as—or perhaps before—they cross the border from Pakistan. Others say it’s better to stop chasing terrorists all over the countryside and instead to protect the Afghan population, provide basic services, and build their trust. But since resources are limited, which segments of the population do you protect—those in the cities, where most of the people live, or in the villages, where the Taliban have made their deepest incursions?

President Obama has talked of sending three extra brigades to Afghanistan. That means about 12,000 combat troops. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks of deploying 30,000 extra troops—doubling the 30,000 we have there now.

These numbers sound far apart, but they’re not. Obama’s three brigades would also require “enablers”—military jargon for the personnel who enable the combat brigades to fight. They would include an aviation brigade (already in place), a division headquarters, a support brigade, military police, medics, military engineers (to build the expanded barracks and bases), and so on. Add all this into the mix, and you get 30,000 extra troops. Obama and Mullen are talking about the same troop boost.

How did they come up with this number? This is where the cause for worry begins. It didn’t come from any assessment of how many troops are needed for a particular mission. No decisions about a specific mission—an operational goal—have yet been made.

The request for three brigades stems from one fact and one fact only: That’s how many brigades will be available this year, as more troops pull out of Iraq.

It’s a number based on what we have, not on what we need. It has no substantive rationale.

There soon will be a rationale, and it may well be the product of systematic thinking. Three “strategic reviews” of Afghanistan are currently in the works, due to be finished this month—one by the National Security Council, one by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, one by Gen. David Petraeus’ staff and advisers at U.S. Central Command. (Petraeus’ review encompasses Afghanistan, Iraq, and the surrounding region.)

Each review is being conducted separately, but they are all dealing with the same questions: Given the president’s strategic objective, what are the operational goals, and how much do we need—how many forces, of what kind, doing what, for how long, at what cost—to succeed?

Judging from press accounts and from my own conversations with officials and advisers involved in these reviews, a consensus seems to be developing that—in the medium to long term—we should put most of our efforts into a counterinsurgency campaign, along the lines of Gen. Petraeus’ field manual on the subject. This conforms to the school of thought that the best way to defeat insurgents is not to chase them here and there, but to protect the Afghan population and help build loyalty to the government.

However, there are widely differing views—both between and within the review teams—over what to do in the short term (as well as over how long the short term might last). The problem, widely acknowledged, is that a certain level of security has to be attained before a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign can work—and that many Afghan cities, villages, and roads haven’t reached that level.

When asked what missions the three extra brigades will perform, one Pentagon official said, “All of the missions.” Some troops will chase terrorists, some will protect the population, some will train the Afghan army. … But three extra brigades—which, again, is all we can muster in the next year—aren’t enough to do all that. (Some officials say that the NATO allies have agreed to up their efforts a bit, now that the popular Obama has replaced the much-loathed Bush, but they’re unlikely to muster more than a few thousand troops—perhaps a brigade’s worth. The allies could help more in other ways, for instance, in special forces, government administration, and training police. Bush never made such requests; perhaps Obama will.)

So, choices will have to be made. The Joint Staff seems to be pushing for a more intense short-term drive to beat back Taliban guerrillas coming across the Pakistani border. The extra U.S. ground troops would make it possible to do that without relying so heavily on airstrikes, which have unavoidably inflicted civilian casualties, which have only driven more people—Afghans and Pakistanis—into the arms of the Taliban.

Analysts on other review teams advocate putting the extra effort into protecting the population or guarding roads—to bolster the impression, among the Afghan population, that they can trust their government (and its allies) to provide security and that, therefore, they don’t need to turn to the Taliban as an alternative.

David Kilcullen, one of the leading counterinsurgency analysts and author of the forthcoming book The Accidental Guerrilla, was a key adviser to Petraeus in Iraq and, for a while, to Condoleezza Rice in Bush’s State Department. Appearing on Thursday before the Senate foreign relations committee, Kilcullen—a firm supporter of the basic objective in Afghanistan—emphasized that there were risks and caveats in all these approaches.

The critical “short term,” to Kilcullen’s mind, is very short indeed—between now and Afghanistan’s presidential elections, scheduled for this coming August. “If we fail to stabilize Afghanistan this year,” he told the committee, “there will be no future.”

To stabilize Afghanistan this year, he went on, “we need to refocus the military and police on a single crucial task: protecting the population in advance of the elections,” so that, whoever wins, their result “restores the government’s legitimacy and with it the credibility of the international effort.”

There aren’t enough troops to protect the entire population. So, Kilcullen and others are trying to calculate where we could place the smallest number of troops to protect the largest percentage of the Afghan people. This is a challenge; census data in Afghanistan are sparse and unreliable. But certainly it means putting more troops in the cities—living among the people, setting up patrols (joint teams of NATO troops, Afghan soldiers, and Afghan police), building trust, getting intelligence.

Can this be done in time? Kilcullen makes no claims of certainty. He does express certainty, however, that the alternative approach—simply chasing terrorists—”won’t work.” Afghanistan, he noted, is a sovereign state. Why would its people tolerate being used “as little more than a launch pad for strikes against al-Qaida, while doing little to alleviate poverty, institute the rule of law, or improve health and education?”

But here’s the rub. Assuming Kilcullen’s approach works and the elections go well, the war will have only just begun.

“We need to be honest about how long it will take … and how much it will cost,” Kilcullen said. His estimates: 10-15 years, $2 billion per month just for the extra 30,000 troops, still more for help with development and governance.

Stephen Biddle, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser on the Central Command’s strategic review, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that the time and expense might be reduced if we negotiate with nonideological elements and allies of the Taliban. We could, for instance, tell some provincial warlord that if he abandons the Taliban and joins the fight against them, he can become the governor of the province and enjoy certain prerogatives. (And if he doesn’t agree, we will destroy him and all his followers.) This is a delicate task; the sticks and carrots have to be designed specifically for each warlord; and of course there is no negotiating with hard-core Taliban.

Gen. Petraeus, too, has spoken several times of the need to strike deals with the “reconcilable” Taliban—in part because they can’t all be killed or captured, no matter how many troops the West sends, in part because that’s simply how most wars of this sort end.

But others are skeptical of these scenarios. In the past centuries of wars, the British, then the Russians, then the Americans have succeeded in turning some warlord or the other to their side—then watched as he shifts sides again a few weeks later, because he’s been offered a better deal or to avenge the death of a relative or for no discernible reason.

Then there’s the ultimate consideration: Even if everything goes splendidly in Afghanistan, it will count for naught unless the Taliban and al-Qaida are neutralized in neighboring Pakistan—a turbulent state that has nuclear weapons. There isn’t much the United States can do about that problem militarily; it’s a diplomatic puzzle to be worked out with other powers in the region. Gen. Petraeus will have a role to play in this; so, even more, will special envoy Richard Holbrooke. The issue of how many troops should do what in Afghanistan will be, by comparison, a sideshow—albeit an expensive, and perhaps a necessary, one.

How expensive and how necessary? This is where President Obama will have to make the decision—and then make the case before the public. If, in the spirit of open government, he goes on television and says, in line with Kilcullen’s estimate, “We need to spend tens of billions of dollars a year for the next decade or two to keep Afghanistan stable,” he’d better be able to make the case that we have some chance of succeeding—and that we’ll face serious dangers if we don’t. If he can’t make that case at the outset, he shouldn’t jump in.