We can’t downsize to success in Afghanistan

Max Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of "War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today."

During last year’s campaign, Barack Obama stressed that while he wanted to withdraw from Iraq, he was no pacifist. “As president,” he said on July 15, 2008, “I will make the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be. This is a war that we have to win.”

He began to make good on his word on March 27 when he announced a “comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan” that included 21,000 additional troops. The goal, he said, was to “reverse the Taliban’s gains” and “prevent Afghanistan from becoming the Al Qaeda safe haven that it was before 9/11.”

On Aug. 30, the president’s handpicked commander in Afghanistan delivered a plan to do just that. Implementing his counterinsurgency strategy, Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote, “requires more forces.” If extra troops are not sent, and soon, the “likely result” would be “failure.”


One would expect, based on his past statements, that Obama would rush to give McChrystal the forces needed to win what the president described in August as a “war of necessity.” Yet that’s not the case. The White House has been sitting on the general’s report for a month, refusing to allow him to submit his resource request or testify to Congress and leaking to the news media that the president may decide to downsize the entire war effort.

Why this sudden hesitation after so many months of resolute rhetoric? Surely the president cannot be getting cold feet simply because of rising American casualties. Losses are tragic but expected in a tough fight.

Maybe he’s panicking over falling public support for the war, especially among his liberal base. Yet this war remains far more popular than the one in Iraq was in 2006 when President George W. Bush approved the “surge.” If Obama asks for more troops, Congress is unlikely to oppose him.

Perhaps the fraud-marred presidential election has caused Obama to doubt whether it’s possible to build a legitimate government in Kabul. That’s a real concern, but it is being addressed by the Afghan electoral authorities, who are reexamining ballots cast in hundreds of precincts where fraud was alleged. Even if President Hamid Karzai ultimately prevails, that’s hardly the end of the world. He remains popular with many Afghans, especially the Pashtuns, who make up the base of the insurgency. He has at least as much credibility as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki did in 2007 at the start of the surge, and he can increase his support still further if he does a better job of delivering basic services and fighting corruption -- something coalition forces can push for if they receive more resources.

Admittedly, improving governance will be a tough task. The same may be said of the other “lines of operation” that McChrystal’s strategy envisions, from growing the Afghan security forces to improving population security, strategic communications and detainee operations. But what’s the alternative?

Vice President Joe Biden favors a smaller-scale strategy that would employ high-tech weapons and special forces to kill terrorists from afar. But such a strategy has rarely, if ever, succeeded. It has been employed by Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah. The result: Hamas controls Gaza, and Hezbollah controls southern Lebanon. It has been employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The result: The Taliban controls western Pakistan and large swaths of eastern and southern Afghanistan.

There is no reason to expect, given its long record of failure, that this strategy will work, and no one knows that better than McChrystal, who was in charge of special operations forces hunting terrorists in Iraq for years. Such operations are useful but not decisive, because terrorist leaders can always be replaced. Only by placing security forces among the population can a government prevent terrorists from creating havens.

In Afghanistan today, that must be a job primarily for NATO because the Afghan security forces are simply too small. Afghanistan is bigger in area and population than Iraq, yet its army and police are less than one-third the size of Iraq’s (170,000 versus 600,000). Sending more U.S. troops today can push the insurgents back and create breathing room for the expansion of the Afghan forces.

Conversely, if we start downsizing, our NATO allies are sure to beat us to the exits. The result will be the further unraveling of security in Afghanistan. In such an environment, it is hard to know how we could generate the intelligence needed to successfully target terrorists or the stability needed to train Afghan forces. The presence of American trainers or special forces requires a substantial support base to keep supply lines open, safeguard bases and rescue Americans who are in danger of being overrun.

Gains for the Taliban would be not only a human rights disaster but a strategic disaster, because of the close links between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As a little-noticed passage in McChrystal’s leaked report notes: “Al Qaeda’s links with HQN [the Haqqani network, one of the leading insurgent groups] have grown, suggesting that expanding HQN control could create a favorable environment for AQAM [Al Qaeda and associated movements] to reestablish safe havens in Afghanistan.”

We do not have to create “Jeffersonian democracy” in Afghanistan. But we do have to keep it from becoming a terrorist haven. The only way to achieve that minimal objective is with a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. If Obama blinks now, he will be doing grave damage not only to U.S. security but to his own credibility.