Afghanistan: Better Be Sure
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Having been twice to Iraq, I know how hard it is to judge the situation clearly from any distance. Having never been to Afghanistan, I would not therefore think of putting my judgment ahead of General McChrystal's, or those of my comrades here at BlackFive who have done tours there. I do worry about this assessment of our Civil-Military Operations planning; and this one, which claims that the new proposal includes absolutely no mention of the word "tribe" or any of its near relatives. Both of these reports are worrisome, but I hope that -- as is so often the case -- they are one side of a more complicated story. Perhaps, for example, the tribal engagement strategy is in the full, classified report, or perhaps it is elsewhere; but I trust that our leadership understands that they absolutely need a deep and detailed game plan to use the tribes, their histories, and even their animosities to achieve the desired strategic effects.
Indeed, I do trust General McChrystal and my comrades on these matters. Those who have been, and seen, and grappled with the problem, understand best what they are doing. Beyond such vague advice as in the last paragraph, I have nothing to offer on the military situation.
I do have a comment on the larger strategic situation: I think that McQ's formula is the best one. What we need to do now is "fish or cut bait." In deciding, we have to realize that it's not just about our fighting forces having some minimal resources that they need. It's about whether others will fill the space our fighters will die to create.
Deebow is exactly right about what needs to be done -- assuming my experience in Iraq is relevant -- as far as securing the population in the short term. The short term doesn't win the war. To get to victory, we have to do something truly impressive: we have to help the Afghans build an Afghanistan that the people will support so strongly that the Taliban can find little foothold.
As COL Roper was ready to admit the other day, we won't be able to build an Afghan security service that is as strong as Pakistan's; they can't afford it. Pakistan, even with that stronger security force, isn't winning its side of the war. If Afghanistan is going to succeed with the much-smaller force that it can afford, it's going to have to be because of the rapport built between the Afghan government and the Afghan people. It's going to be a neat trick if they can do it, because what they can afford sustainably is a very small force by the standards usually suggested by COIN theory.
We can provide short-term security for the Afghans to try to build that rapport, but we can't build it for them. They have to do it. They're going to need a lot of help, and only some of it can be military help. They will need a lot of technical assistance, which our civil affairs and civil-military operations units can offer; but it can't be just the military. State's Provincial Reconstruction Teams are important, but it can't be just the State Department. We're also going to need a lot of money, a very great deal of money, for capital improvements like rail lines and new roads. Tying the rural Afghan regions to the prosperity that comes from trade is the long-term solution because it gives the people a stake in the peace that they can't afford not to defend. In the short term, better, wider roads make us less dependent on the helicopters, which are an ongoing shortage for us that is not going to improve substantially during the forseeable future of this war.
All of this means that our President needs to know that Congress is behind him, and that our allies are behind him -- with their pocketbooks, if nothing else. Without that assurance, there will be no one and nothing to fill the opportunity our soldiers and Marines would be dying to provide. The Afghans have no money for these things. Not only can they not afford large, sustainable security forces, neither can they train enough agricultural experts and engineers by themselves.
Iraq got the reconstruction resources it needed, but it needed far fewer. It had an educated class. It had major railroads, a port, highways, airports, oil revenue to provide for capital improvements, the fertility of Mesopotamia, and a tourist industry around Najaf and Karbala that managed to be highly profitable even in the worst days of the war. It had people who could step up and take over, start small businesses, administer towns, run factories if we helped them rebuild.
We'll be carrying all of that weight in Afghanistan for a long time to come. We need to know if the political will exists to do that. That is what the military is counting on to make the projected, very small Afghan security forces workable.
Once we know: fish, or cut bait.
The answer depends on the politicians. That means we are most likely to be asked to fish, but without the bait. In such a circumstance, GEN McChrystal is right to resign, and the rest of us have a duty to protest. Our soldiers and Marines must not be kept out there if we do not mean to win.