In yesterday's Washington Post, veteran newsman Bob Woodward recounts a recent meeting between National Security Advisor James Jones and a few dozen Marine officers in Afghanistan's Helmand province under the command of Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson.
The subject on everyone's mind: force levels. Saying that he was "a little light," Nicholson hinted that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. "We don't have enough force to go everywhere," Nicholson said.
Of course he doesn't. One senior military commander confided, in Woodward's telling, "that there would need to be more than 100,000 troops to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized."
So, Nicholson and other commanders were asking: Can we expect to receive additional troops in Afghanistan any time soon?
Jones's answer: don't bet on it.
The retired Marine Corps general reminded his audience in Helmand that Obama has approved two increases already. Going beyond merely an endorsement of the outgoing Bush admiministration's decision to more than double the force in Afghanistan, Obama accepted the recommendation of his advisers to send an additional 17,000, and then shortly thereafter another 4,000.
Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops,...if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?"
Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.
Nicholson and his Marines should be concerned. But so should all Americans. The men and women in our military have been given a mission that is highly dependent upon a very large number of troops, and they don't have a very large number of troops. The clear, hold and build strategy is dangerous and difficult -- even when you have the troop levels that the military's doctrine recommends: 20 troops per 1,000 indigenous population. In a country the size of Afghanistan (with an estimated population of 33 million), that wouldn't be 100,000 troops, that would be 660,000 troops.
Pacifying all of Afghanistan would be nearly impossible with one half that number of troops. It is foolhardy to even attempt such a mission with less than a sixth that many.
So, what gives? (Or, as the military folks might say, "Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?")
It is doubtful that anyone in the White House, the Pentagon, or on Capitol Hill honestly believes that 70,000 U.S. troops can turn Afghanistan into a central Asian version of Alabama -- or even Algeria, for that matter. They might reasonably object that they aren't trying to pacify the whole country, but rather the most restive provinces in the south and east. Perhaps barely 10 million people live there (which my calculator says would require a force of 200,000). Besides, they might go on, the 20 per 1,000 figure is just a guideline, just a rule-of-thumb. Some missions have succeeded with fewer than that ratio of troops, just as other missions have failed with troop ratios in excess of 20 : 1,000.
These seem to be nothing more than thin rationalizations. They reflect the fact that the American public would not support an open-ended mission in Afghanistan that would occupy essentially all of our Marine and Army personnel for many years. The "70,000 troops for who knows how long" is a political statement. They are pursuing a strategy shaped by focus groups and polls, rather than by doctrine and common sense.
No, that is not an argument for more troops. It is not an argument for ignoring public sentiment. It is an argument for a different mission.
The public's growing ambivalence about the war in Afghanistan reflects a well-placed broader skepticism about population-centric counterinsurgency that are heavily dependent upon very large concentrations of troops staying in country for a very long period of time. Americans don't support such missions, because the benefits don't outweigh the costs. And they likely never will. They are equally skeptical of COIN's intellectual cousin, ambitious nation-building projects.
And if I'm right, and if no one actually believes that killing suspected Taliban, destroying fields of poppies, building roads and bridges, establishing judicial standards and training Afghan police is actually going to work, then, well,....
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?
The mission in Afghanistan, especially the troop increases, appear more and more as face-saving gestures. A show of wanting to do something, even if policymakers doubt that it will actually succeed. It is a delaying action, a postponing of the inevitable, a kicking the can down the road.
I hope I'm wrong. I hope that a miracle happens. I hope that the Taliban disappears. That Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mullah Mohammed Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and every other bad guy I can name winds up dead on an Afghan battlefield. Tomorrow, preferably. I hope that all Afghans (girls and boys) get an education and earn a decent living. I hope that Hamid Karzai learns how to govern, Afghan judges learn how to judge, and that the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police quickly learn how to defend their own country.
In short, I hope that the people who are crafting our Afghan strategy know something that I don't.
I fear, however, that the deaths and grievous injuries endured by our military personnel during this interim period, which may run for years or even decades, as we seek "peace with honor" or "a decent interval" (or pick your own favorite Vietnam cliche), will weigh heavily on the consciences of policy makers if, in the end, they have merely burdened these men and women with an impossible task.
Ask Robert McNamara how that feels.