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A Take on the Afghanistan Debate

In recent weeks, we at the Brief have posted numerous articles on the debate surrounding Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s evaluation of Afghanistan and request for 40,000 additional troops.   In light of this, we would like to take the time to unpack the debate and explore what Gen. McChrystal is actually asking for and what he plans to do with it.  Additionally, my editor-in-chief and I would like to articulate our take on President Obama’s current options and what we think they need to include.

The conditions in Afghanistan prior to Gen. McChrystal’s arrival were described as a “downward spiral.”  In response to mounting casualties and an increasingly successful Taliban offensive to retake the country, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates appointed McChrystal to head the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF).  McChrystal began his tenure by reevaluating what ISAF’s goals were and how they could be achieved.  The result was an especially grim report which anticipated inevitable defeat if conditions in Afghanistan were not reversed as soon as possible.  The solution would be, according to McChrystal, a strategy designed to create long-term stability by focusing on the Afghan people.

McChrystal’s approach is a multiphase process which aims to protect civilians through counterinsurgency operations (COIN) and simultaneously build up Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).  The protection of civilians is being prioritized in all operations because the primary goal of any insurgency is to undermine the civilian population’s confidence in the ruling government.  This is usually achieved through terrorist attacks aimed at inducing a disproportionately vicious response from government forces that harm civilians.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban has been brutally effective at attacking ISAF forces and civilians simultaneously, then melting away when reprisal air strikes arrive and inadvertently punish civilians.  McChrystal’s plan restricts air strikes and requires ISAF troops to directly engage with local civilians to respond to needs.  Among other initiatives, ISAF troops are being schooled in local customs and language to facilitate better interaction.  The goal is to restore at least some faith in the government and, therefore, diminish the appeal of the Taliban.

In addition to McChrystal’s “civilian-centric COIN,” ISAF forces will attempt to accelerate the buildup of ANSF.  The present goal is to build up the ANSF to 134,000 by November 2010 and eventually 240,000.  Ideally, once the ANSF reaches that number, the force will be capable of providing security throughout the country without foreign assistance.  Hamid Karzai has indicated that he hopes that this will occur within five years.  To bridge this gap, a “distinctive jump” in US troop levels is being requested.  This is the heart of the controversy.

President Obama is currently considering sending anywhere between 10,000-30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.  Last week, though, US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, raised serious issues about any major troop contribution.  Ambassador Eikenberry correctly pointed out that Hamid Karzai’s regime is too corrupt and ineffective to provide the political component necessary to any counterinsurgency strategy.  As a result, President Obama has asked for a hybrid option which would emphasize a blending of his previous options.  The result is the so-called “Gates Option.”  This option would still send a significant number of troops to Afghanistan, but most would be tabbed for roles as instructors.  The President could still opt to only send about 10,000 troops, the effect of which would be a rejection of Gen. McChrystal’s ambitious counterinsurgency strategy.  The Gates Option, though, could give McChrystal enough flexibility to conduct COIN operations in southern Afghanistan, territory currently held by the Taliban, until ANSF is ready to conduct these operations.

Mr. Obama’s lengthy deliberation of his options could be indicative of something much more important and relevant.  This could be an indication that Mr. Obama is realizing that this war is very different than the war we planned on waging in the autumn of 2001.  Some have criticized Mr. Obama’s delay as “dithering.”  We are in agreement with the Lego insurgent Abu Muqawama that Mr. Obama should take his time to make this decision.  Simply throwing numbers at this problem will only make it worse and we cannot afford to fail.  President Obama’s thorough evaluation of his Afghan options has given many commentators an opportunity to raise criticism.  Predictably, this has given way to numerous analogies to Vietnam.  My editor-in-chief and I think that though this comparison is appealing, it may not be the most fitting.

The reality of the situation in Afghanistan is that the U.S. is engaged in a drug war against a narco-terrorist organization.  US forces are encountering a viciously violent Taliban that is funding itself through the drug trade and some reports have been suggesting this since 2001.   The war in Afghanistan has far less in common with Vietnam than it does with Colombia.  In light of this, any COIN strategy implemented should simultaneously establish stability with rule of law since they naturally support each other.  Robert Killbrew has highlighted the importance of a functioning legal system to eradicate terrorism.  Terrorists aim to attack key components of civil life, such as security of person and home, integrity of governmental processes, and the free exercise of personal liberty.  To respond, countries need effective civil institutions, like uncorrupted police and courts, to ensure that terrorists are prosecuted and incarcerated as criminals.

At present, Afghanistan is the second-most corrupt country in the world despite $39 billion in US aid.  Hamid Karzai has vowed to fight corruption, yet is murky on any details.  Further complicating the situation is the fact that Mr. Karzai’s brother is being paid by the CIA despite accusations that he is profiting off the drug trade.  Ambassador Eikenberry was on to something when he objected to a blank check on troops being written for Afghanistan.  In fact, we feel that any further troop contributions should be contingent on the Afghan government reaching significant benchmarks regarding anti-corruption and transparency.  Additionally, the United States should make abundantly clear to Mr. Karzai that any further presidential pardons of convicted drug lords will result in an immediate reduction of aid to his regime.

The issue presented before us in Afghanistan is one of enormous scope and complexity.  The United States may have  been unaware of what we were actually getting into when we chose to invade in 2001.  Unfortunately, this is the problem for which we must currently develop a solution.  No matter how many troops are contributed to Afghanistan, without a functioning, uncorrupted, independent judiciary to prosecute terrorist as the criminals that they are, all effort will be in vain.  The success of America’s experiment in Afghanistan is crucially dependent on the  development of reliable, sustainable civil institutions.  We simply cannot succeed without them.


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