How many troops do we need in Afghanistan?
Yesterday's publishing of State Department officer's letter of resignation brought us a practical expression of a theory: essentially, that the unified insurgency would collapse if we weren't there for it to fight. The theory holds that tribal ethic of "me against my brother, the two of us against our cousins, the four of us against our neighbors, all of us against the tribe across the ridge, all those tribes together against strangers..." is allowing the Pashtun-based Taliban to hold up a coalition that they couldn't manage without us present. If we pulled back, or pulled out, these natural tensions would reassert themselves and the insurgency would be ripped apart from the inside.
There are several names associated with this theory that give it credibility. The first is Dr. David Kilcullen, who needs no introduction to readers of BLACKFIVE. His book The Accidental Guerrilla holds that there are two factions to the insurgencies we fight: the hard-core ideologues who came to fight us, and the "accidental guerrillas" who got swept up into a fight that happened in their backyard. Dr. Kilcullen gives advice not so much aimed at abandoning the fight, but on swaying those who have 'accidentally' fallen in with the enemy toward our side.
Another, who should be as well known but is not, is MAJ Jim Gant, a Special Forces officer who has a new paper out on the subject of tribal engagement. The paper is only 45 pages long, yet offers some fairly specific suggestions on how to reform current practices to support the strategy he proposes. [BlackFive edit. note: Major Gant was a SYSK two and a half years ago for his courage and honor in Iraq, and there's a follow up piece here.]
In Iraq, tribal engagement is how the Awakening happened: the tribal frictions began to pull some of the 'accidental' guerrillas away from AQI, and the Coalition was ready to do what it took to support their swing to our side of the conflict.
How would that theory work in the absence of Coalition forces, which is what is being proposed in Afghanistan? Presumably, one would wait for the tribal tensions to create open fissures between the hard core and the local tribals, and then make contact with those tribes and offer them support at a much-lower footprint: perhaps with MAJ Gant's proposed SF advisors, or perhaps only with money and weapons. In return for their support against terrorists, and tacit support for the government, they would be allowed to field forces and control their own territory (as the Sons of Iraq were so permitted). This approach creates a whole new class of "warlords" in Afghanistan -- or reinforces existing ones -- but it could plausibly create a situation in which those warlords became clients of the Afghan government rather than foes of it.
One of the hallmarks of COIN theory is that you shouldn't create local-national COIN forces that look like Western forces. Rather, they should be organic to the local culture, so they will have credibility with the local culture instead of appearing to be a foreign imposition. This approach suggests a modification of that basic hallmark: you may need both. At first, an organic tribal/militia force can actually win the fight on the ground. The 'Westernized' security forces take longer to develop and purge of corruption, but are important to finalizing the peace and providing the central government with the ability to control the ground at the end of the day.
The Sons of Iraq are a good example of this, in just the way that the Iraqi Security Forces were not: and it took the SOI to end the fight, so that the ISF could step in later and assume governance roles. These roles may be in support of the tribes as much as they are in support of the central government: the ISF becomes, as we have been, the negotiator between the central government they serve and the tribal leaders they work with every day. In that way, they are the glue that holds the state together and allows for a final peace.
Another voice is Dr. Rory Stewart, who famously walked across Afghanistan in 2002. He also holds that the US should back off substantially in Afghanistan in order to allow ethnic rivalries to work against the Taliban. While they would capture some outlying areas, the Uzbek and Tajik rivalries should restrain them from overrunning the country. A minimal Coalition presence in Kabul would keep the government from collapsing, and allow it to reach out to other Afghans with aid programs and economic support.
Dr. Stewart isn't envisioning a high-level strategy of the type described above, but rather a sort of "muddling-through." However, he sees the same basic tension at work: the Taliban being constrained by rivalries that are suppressed because of our presence.
Dr. Tony Corn at SWJ proposed something similar recently, which he called "A Kilcullen-Biden plan." His article is interesting because it looks at things from a higher level perspective as well: can the US actually afford to fight this war? He doesn't think we can. Since the COIN model we are currently using requires substantial funding for a long time, if he is correct than a scaled-back model becomes inevitable.
Can we make such a strategy work, and at a much lower cost in American lives and money? It depends on whether the central theory is true. The Taliban were able to overrun most of Afghanistan before, though what became the Northern Alliance did indeed stop them. How far would we have to pull back, and for how long, before the tensions rising to the surface began to split the insurgency enough to reintroduce Tribal Engagement Teams, for example?
This approach would also mean consigning Afghan women and girls (and any remaining current allies!) in these remote areas to control by the Taliban. That's a moral cost we'd have to decide that we were prepared to accept.
Finally, it would create something akin to a safe-haven in those areas where the tribal/ethnic fissures were least. Pakistan's decision to do this is what precipitated the strong, Taliban-based insurgency we are facing now. We would be gambling that the new safe-haven would be contained by the fissures, so that the Taliban would have all it could do to deal with newly-opposed tribes and ethnic forces (who would have our support, of course, when they were prepared to accept it).
It's a strategy with some risk, then, and some known costs we'd have to elect to accept. Nevertheless, it's not a foolish proposal: some of our best and most experienced believe it can work, while saving American lives and fortunes.