We Might Still Need More Troops In Afghanistan

Barack Obama has been an impressive president on national security matters, and Afghanistan is a case in point. Within two months of becoming president, aided by Bruce Riedel, David Petraeus and Richard Holbrooke and others, he crafted a new strategy that will soon nearly double the American effort in that country.

However, for all its virtues, the Obama plan may still lowball requirements for the Afghanistan mission to succeed. The administration’s decisions in March to increase U.S. troop numbers to 68,000 (making for about 100,000 foreign troops in all), and Afghan army and police to about 215,000 will leave combined coalition forces at only half the levels in Iraq during the surge and Afghanistan is slightly larger and more populous.

It is hard to quibble with the overall commitment of an administration that is acting so decisively. Moreover, Afghanistan’s infrastructure is weak enough, and the ongoing demands of the Iraq operation great enough on U.S. troops, that a faster buildup might not be possible. In addition, only about half of Afghanistan is severely afflicted by conflict, so we may not need as many troops as standard doctrine would suggest. But the administration still needs to be careful. Its initial plan is better viewed as a rough first draft than a final strategy.

Unfortunately there are troubling signs that the Obama administration may be digging in against any future troop requirements. As Bob Woodward reported, Obama recently said, “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops.” At a certain level, this statement is indisputable; counterinsurgency and stabilization missions also require good military tactics, robust economic development plans, and strong political leadership by the indigenous government. At another level, the statement is worrisome, because our military and civilian leaders are far too sophisticated ever to just “pile on troops.” If the president is really portraying advocates of a larger force in this simplistic light, he may be closing his mind to what could be required in the months ahead.

On his recent trip to Afghanistan, National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones made similarly worrisome comments. Again according to Woodward, he stated that “This will not be won by the military alone. … We tried that for six years.” In fact, we did not try that, or any other serious plan, in past years; we carried out a minimalist strategy that did not provide adequate resources of any type.

Jones also told commanders in Afghanistan that the president would likely react quite badly to any near-term troop request. It may be a strange thing to say of a retired four-star Marine general with soft-spoken and gentlemanly ways, but such comments smack of Rumsfeldianism — trying to discourage debate regardless of where the evidence may lead based on strong preconceptions of what this war should be like, and of what leaders want it to be.

In fairness, of course, Jones is not Rumsfeld. And he deserves credit for his role in the initial Afghanistan plan. But that does not change the fact that he needs to avoid squelching dissent. We should not rule out options before data becomes available.

At a broader level, Jones is surely correct that we need stronger economic and political levers for the Afghanistan mission, and that we also need to help Afghan security forces gain the competence and capabilities to fight for their country. Indeed, in addition to increasing their force levels and their training, we probably need to provide Afghan forces much better equipment so that these brave individuals have a better chance of surviving. The Obama administration should not shy away from making such a request of Congress.

But Jones and others must also remember how we will help the Afghans improve their own army and police. It is not just a matter of classroom teaching and drilling at military academies. We also must embed more advisers with them in the field. And we must also partner with them as in Iraq — teaming up American units with larger Afghan formations, so they can learn from us.

We may or may not have enough forces in Afghanistan to pull off this full range of activities. Right now, it is simply too soon to know. Let’s not close off the conversation until we learn a little bit more.