Five Myths About the Afghanistan Escalation

If we're going to win back the Afghans' support, then we need to show them that we can protect them from the Taliban -- something that will clearly take more troops -- both U.S. and Afghan.
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As President Obama readies a plan to send more troops to Afghanistan, there's been a vigorous debate on the progressive side among those who wish to see more U.S. troops sent to Afghanistan and those who don't. On the one hand, we have a White House website that says explicitly:

Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security -- the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan's economic development.

On the other, we have a very vocal and growing grass-roots movement of bloggers, journalists, and activists who believe that this is a dangerous advance in the wrong direction.

At bottom, this sort of debate is always good. By hashing out our issues publicly, we can find common ground and, ultimately, settle on a proposed solution or way forward as a coherent and effective team. But what we don't need is a "bloody" conflict between allied groups over foreign policy just as the Obama administration is getting started. Personally, I believe that in order to move forward at all in Afghanistan, it's going to take more troops. The organization for which I work,, is also of that view. But that doesn't mean we don't respect the views and concerns of our friends and allies who see things differently. That said, at this point, I think it's important to articulate and dispel some of the myths I've seen which concern the proposed build-up of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

If we're going to make progress, we have to get past hyperbole (on both sides of the debate), and better articulate our views., For many of us who support sending more troops to Afghanistan, we feel like there's simply a lot of misinformation going around on what support for an "escalation" in Afghanistan really means. And, perhaps since many of us are just trying to keep up with the bold moves the Obama administration has made in just days, we haven't taken the time to clearly and thoughtfully address each of these points.

Myth #1: Those who support additional troops believe military force is the primary solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. Quite the contrary. If America wants to see failure on a massive scale, it can get behind a primarily military solution. The only people I know who support a largely military solution in Afghanistan are my undereducated friends (and I'm sure we all know at least one) who want to "bomb the ragheads back into the Stone Age." Pretty much everyone else who supports the escalation sees additional troops as only one ingredient--albeit an important one--in terms of clawing our way out of this looming disaster. To this point, President Obama's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, had this to say on Tuesday:

Moving away from the Bush administration's expansive rhetoric about creating an Afghan democracy, Gates mused that the U.S. needed to set "modest, realistic goals" in Afghanistan, making clear that he sees "no purely military solution" for the insurgency, preferring a "fully integrated civil-military strategy."

A White House official backed that up on Wednesday by saying that the "new U.S. policy that will have a 'significant non-military component.'"

And, of course, this is the only realistic way to go. The aspects that will win this effort in the long term are economic development, educational infrastructure, civil infrastructure (like roads, electricity, and clean water), and a transition in farming from opium to something else. But regardless, none of this will ever be accomplished in Afghanistan unless someone can secure the population. Because you can't accomplish any of those non-military acts in the middle of a raging Taliban insurgency, or in the event of a pull-out, a civil war. And that's why sufficient military force has a role to play in fixing this situation.

Myth #2: This escalation in Afghanistan is just like the unquestioning drive toward war in Iraq.

Many progressives see a comparable situation to that in which the drive to war in Iraq was crammed down the throats of the American public by the presidential administration and a fawning media. Looking back, many progressives feel as though they didn't do enough to halt that reckless path to war. Not wanting to get burned again, they're pulling out all the stops to prevent it from happening again. Having been on the receiving end of Bush's Brilliant Plan myself, I can certainly appreciate the effort. But after email conversations with many on the progressive Left over the past couple of weeks, I can't help but get the feeling that many who oppose the escalation aren't adequately distinguishing between these two dissimilar situations.

The fact is, the run-up to the war in Iraq was nothing like the current push to add troops in Afghanistan. Without delving too deeply into the tactical and strategic military aspects of both, it's clear to everyone now that the Bush administration pushed for war in Iraq based on the calculations and machinations of people who literally had no idea what they were talking about: Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and Frederick Kagan to name a few. None of these individuals had any combat experience at all--either conventional or unconventional. And they had little, if any, formal schooling in, or understanding of, the societies they sought to affect.

But, the Obama administration has taken a different tack. The people guiding the Afghanistan effort are, believe it or not, actual subject matter experts. The administration isn't just relying on the advice of political cronies. Instead, they're using a mix of competent academic and military thinkers who have extensive experience in not only the region, but also in the field of counterinsurgency.

At the top of the Defense Department, we have Robert Gates. In contrast to Donald Rumsfeld--who epitomized the dangers of the military-industrial complex--Gates is a career civil servant who spent 26 years in the CIA and on the National Security Council. His new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy is Michele Flournoy, the former co-founder of the influential Center for a New American Security (CNAS)--a think tank known for its focus on counterinsurgency. When speaking to this very topic in 2007, Flournoy wrote:

Military power is necessary but not sufficient to deal with 21st century challenges; complex problems demand solutions that integrate all of the instruments of our national power.

Just as importantly, the Obama administration has shown an immediate willingness to listen to those who've learned first-hand the capabilities and limitations of military power in counterinsurgency operations on the ground. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Paul Eaton, who has led both the Army's Infantry School and the establishment of the Iraqi Armed Forces in 2004, recently said, "We never had enough of anything in Afghanistan"--shortly before meeting with the president in the White House last week. Craig Mullaney (a Rhodes Scholar) and Nate Fick, who both led troops during counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan and later authored memoirs about their experiences, have both served on the Obama transition team. In fact, just this month, Fick, along with his CNAS colleague--Iraq veteran and counterinsurgency luminary John Nagl--wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that in "the past five years, the fight in Afghanistan has been hobbled by strategic drift, conflicting tactics, and too few troops." While Nagl and Fick are arguing for more troops in Afghanistan, they're by no means asserting that such a move is the be-all, end-all. They note:

Nearly three quarters of the population is illiterate. The country has 50 percent more land than Iraq, but a fifth of the paved roads. Security is crucial, but it is development--enabled by responsible governance--that will secure a lasting peace.

Remember, these are military leaders--one a soldier and one a marine--to whom the administration is listening. And they're arguing that the military aspect of the mission is only one part. So this isn't a matter of "the military versus the State Department," or "the military versus the Left." This is, in fact, a long overdue shift in which the U.S. government and the military itself have finally come to grips with the fact that these aren't problems that can be solved by the military alone.

In sum, the team advising President Obama is a far cry from the "Gang Who Couldn't Govern Straight" which advised President Bush during the full-court press for war with Iraq. And while I'm not suggesting that anyone trust their government uncritically, I would ask that people give this team a little more credit and little more leeway in formulating foreign policy than the last team.

Myth #3: Those who support an escalation in Afghanistan aren't concerned with civilian casualties.

If the U.S. and NATO ultimately fail in Afghanistan, much of the blame could rightfully be placed on the many disastrous instances in which coalition forces have killed civilians. It's the one thing that carries the potential to unite the Afghan population in opposition to our presence. But by adding troops in Afghanistan, we can mitigate this, namely through less reliance on air strikes and through better intelligence gleaned from citizens who aren't living in abject fear of the Taliban.

Using air strikes frequently is a horrible counterinsurgency strategy and the military--including Secretary Gates--knows it. Only a Douglas Feith-type would propose "winning" an insurgency through air power. That's one of the reasons commanders are begging for more troops on the ground.

Calling in air strikes is what you do when you feel severely threatened and don't have enough troops on the ground to take care of an insurgency the right way. Save for carpet bombing or a nuclear payload, air power is essentially futile unless you have troops on the ground in close proximity to the projected strike. That's because troops on the ground can correctly identify and assess the target, call it in, and perform a sensitive site exploitation on the ground after the fact in order to determine what the strike achieved--if anything. If you can't do that, you're throwing punches in the dark--and unnecessarily killing civilians. Unfortunately, outnumbered ground commanders will continue to rely on air power until their ranks are bolstered.

From a counterinsurgency standpoint, killing civilians will very quickly lead to the deaths of your own troops. It galvanizes societies and turns them against you. Thus more troops should result in better intelligence, fewer air strikes, and fewer mistaken raids. And this is especially important if you're already struggling to earn the trust of these communities. . .which leads to the next myth.

Myth #4: The Afghan people don't want us in their country.

Trust me: You'll know when they don't want us in their country. To this day, the vast majority of Afghans truly prefer U.S. forces over the Taliban. What they don't like, however, is our overwhelming failure to make progress after our initial gains in 2001 and 2002. If they hated us in general, the Afghans would've kicked out our meager force of 30,000 troops years ago. What they hate is when we tell them that we're going to run off the Taliban and fix their country--and then we don't. What they hate is when we offer them incentives to side with us against the Taliban, and then, when the Taliban return to their villages, we leave them hung out to dry. What they hate is when we are forced to rely on air power--resulting in unnecessary civilian casualties--because we don't have enough ground troops.

This degradation of support from the Afghan people is evident in annual polling. According to ABC News, in 2005, 68 percent of Afghans viewed the U.S. presence positively. In 2006, that number had fallen to 57 percent. And by the end of 2007, only 42 percent of Afghans viewed U.S. forces positively. We can only assume the numbers were better prior to 2005 and that they're far worse now.

The reason is simple: It's math. We just don't have enough troops to keep in their good graces. John Nagl--who literally helped write the book on counterinsurgency--explains in the New York Times why that is and how more troops will help:

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.

Most Afghans still despise the Taliban. Unfortunately, the Afghan people are going to ally themselves with the side they see as winning. It's an understandable survival mechanism for them. This is why many jumped at the opportunity to work with us in the beginning--and it's also why so many have now turned back to the Taliban. Because we have so few troops in the country, we're not able to support and protect those Afghans who side with us.

So this means, of course, that the Afghans don't inherently hold us in disdain. But if we're going to win back their support, then we need to show them that we can protect them from the Taliban--something that will clearly take more troops--both U.S. and Afghan.

Myth #5: The Obama administration has set its Afghanistan policy in stone.

Unlike the ideologically-driven Bush administration, this administration isn't stupid. And they've given every indication that they intend to be a learning organization. By that, I mean that if someone can come up with a better solution, they seem as though they're going to listen. As White House spokesman Robert Gibbs reiterated on Wednesday:

"(There) is a review of our policy in Afghanistan. That policy ... review continues in order to ensure our success in that region, but that policy review is not yet completed," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said during a media briefing, as he tried to clarify what he said officials "believed was erroneous reporting" by The New York Times. The newspaper had reported a shift in emphasis to fighting insurgents rather than development.

"The president has long believed that, whether it's in Iraq or in Afghanistan ... that there's not simply a military solution to that problem, that only through long-term and sustainable development can we ever hope to turn around what's going on there," Gibbs said.

As one who supports adding troops and resources in Afghanistan, I'm comfortable with this. I have more faith in the decision-making ability of this crew over the last.

The bottom line is that we currently have no strategic or operational depth in Afghanistan. And while I don't have all the answers, I do know that nothing happens unless we get the flexibility to operate that comes with having more troops on the ground.

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