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Blogger's Roundtable: COIN in Afghanistan

We spoke with COL Daniel Roper, the director of the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Center at FT Leavenworth.  He has been in this role since July 2007, when the Surge was really kicking off.  The Colonel is nuclear-physicist smart -- literally, he has a Master's Degree in nuclear physics.  If you want to know the long-term prognosis for our counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan, then, this is one of the guys you should want to tap.

I asked him two sets of questions.  The first was about the principle of building the Afghan security forces:  Isn't there a sustainability problem, since the force proposed will cost three times the entire Afghan GDP?  Furthermore, doesn't Pakistan's problems with the insurgency on its side of the border -- Pakistan boasts the sixth most powerful military in the world, which includes purpose-designed COIN units like the paramilitary Rangers, and which is surely more powerful than any Afghan security forces we can expect to generate in the near future -- suggest that our force generation models may not be adequate to the challenge?

His answer was that sustainability would be a problem, but that it might be possible for Afghanistan to succeed with a smaller force if there was a significant success in the good governance aspects of the COIN effort.  If enough trust can be built between the government and the populace, that may prove more important than the security piece in the long run.  (This was the answer to the Pakistan part too, he said:  the lack of trust between the tribal areas and the central government complicate things even for a powerful security service.)  What is important on the security side is to create enough stability for the good governance efforts to take hold.

The second set of questions had to do with the good governance models in Afghanistan.  These were successful in Iraq in large part because of the infrastructure that already exists:  rail lines and highways connect Iraqi goods to world markets; an educated population can be helped to start small businesses with microgrants, or can take jobs in factories if we help them build those factories.  That gave Iraq's people, not just the elite, a stake in the peace we were establishing.  Afghanistan's rural and mountainous regions have none of that. 

He agreed that this was a serious problem, and that a long term investment by the US and the international community would be necessary to resolve it.  The security services can buy the opportunity for such an investment to be made, but the real victory depends on a sustained commitment to make that investment.

I can't find anything to disagree with in either set of responses.  As we debate our course in Afghanistan, then, what we need to know up front is this:  will the world, and not just the United States, commit to the opportunity our fighting men and women are buying for them?  As the Colonel rightly points out, all we can do is buy them the time and the place to make the investment.  We need a firm commitment from the Congress and our allies that they will follow through on the opportunity that is being bought for them. 

If they will make no such commitment, then it is irresponsible and immoral to ask our soldiers and Marines to sacrifice themselves there.  If Afghanistan is a fight that we must win, our Congress and our allies must show the President that they will make that commitment.