President Obama has apparently made his difficult decision about the idea of adding four combat brigades and a total of up to 40,000 more American troops to the mission in Afghanistan. Obama has already added about 30,000 troops this year, bringing the U.S. total close to 68,000 and the overall NATO/foreign presence to about 105,000. The corruption in the Karzai government complicates the decision. But there are four main reasons why on balance the president is right to support Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal if, as expected, he promises to provide almost all those added forces when he addresses the nation tonight.
- Changing the battlefield momentum. The last two or three years, the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan has had the momentum. McChrystal’s changes, combined with the arrival of forces approved by Obama in March, have begun to arrest the slide. But while we may no longer be losing this struggle, we aren’t winning either — and Afghans know it. As one tribal leader in Uruzgan province recently put it, explaining why he had half of his tribal youth fighting for the Taliban and half for the government, “I can’t tell who’s going to win yet.” We need to make him, and others like him, realize that NATO and the Afghan government are going to succeed on the battlefield.
- Training Afghan forces. Going beyond what was done in Iraq, McChrystal proposes a form of apprenticeship for Afghan police and army forces. He wants to partner Afghan and NATO units, so that they would pair off as “sister formations” and train, plan, deploy, patrol and fight together. The goal of this sister-unit pairing concept is to build up Afghan security forces to be larger and more effective — ultimately reaching levels of 240,000 Afghan soldiers and 160,000 police. Within two or three years, a smaller NATO unit might be able to partner with a larger Afghan one — say, a NATO battalion (of about 800 troops) for an Afghan brigade (of some 2,000 to 3,000). But at first, the NATO and Afghan units will have to be of comparable size.
- Neutralizing Taliban sanctuaries. In Nawa, in Helmand province, U.S. Marines have cleared the area of Taliban and can now patrol without body armor. But in nearby Marja, no clearing has occurred, and enemy forces can use the town as a safe area from which to mount attacks — including, against key political leaders and friendly forces in Nawa. This is the kind of dilemma we face with our current number of deployed forces. And in Kandahar province, the Taliban is increasingly able to infiltrate Kandahar City to intimidate the population. We need reinforcements there so that limited numbers of NATO soldiers can establish joint stations with Afghans within the city — and so that the approaches to the city can be secured by friendly forces and kept out of enemy hands. Again, having a patchwork of relatively secure areas right next to enemy sanctuaries is unstable. We need to consolidate these areas of security and control. Only with more forces is that possible.
- Supervising unofficial armed groups. In Iraq, we worked with Sunni tribes as part of the “awakening” process. Doing so helped enormously with the success of the surge. Afghans are understandably wary of anything that would re-arm the very groups that often contributed to civil war in the past. As such, NATO has pursued initiatives with tribes very carefully. But an approach tailored to Afghanistan’s specific circumstances is now emerging. The Afghan government and NATO want to do any agreement on a communitywide basis (not a tribal basis), expecting elders to form a shura inclusive of the various groups in a given region to oversee the effort. Armed groups would then be under government supervision, and trained by NATO forces. The plan would avoid paying the fighters directly, instead providing funds to their communities for development projects. They would have to keep Taliban out of their vicinities as a condition of any agreement. This approach requires the presence of NATO (or dependable Afghan) forces to work, in order to provide supervision and if necessary enforcement — meaning that it is a complement to McChrystal’s troop buildup plan rather than an alternative.
We are beginning to make slow progress in Afghanistan but we have a strategy without the proper resources to match it. McChrystal’s proposal would bring our ends and means into harmony, and as such is worthy of the support of the president. It provides no guarantee of success, but there is a better than 50-50 chance of achieving an outcome that supports our core strategic goals in Afghanistan. Obama is to be commended for his sound judgment in deciding to support the plan.