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The Battle on Capitol Hill

Congressional Democrats versus commanders on the ground.

6:00 PM, Sep 22, 2009 • By EMILY ESFAHANI SMITH
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"I served in al Anbar [Iraq]. I tried to conduct a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign with insufficient resources . . . I didn't have enough boots on the ground." The Iraqi insurgents killed his troops. They blew up his economic projects. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, John Nagl, a retired army officer, called for more American forces in Afghanistan.

Nagl is an advocate of the same strategy put forward by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Kabul. "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)--while Afghan security capacity matures--risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible," according to McChrystal's classified report describing security conditions in Afghanistan, reported by the Washington Post on Monday.

With American forces in Afghanistan experiencing the bloodiest month of battle in August, the administration and Congress are debating the merits of the counterinsurgency strategy in place. Some of the experts testifying on at Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings September 16 and 17 said that a robust counterinsurgency campaign is the only way to win this war, while others supported a less-engaged counter-terrorism approach. Senator John Kerry, the committee's chairman, seemed to prefer a counter-terrorism campaign, which focuses on targeting terrorists rather than securing the population. Gen. McChrystal is, however, very experienced in the targeted raids and air strike that characterize counter-terror campaigns. As the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command (2003-2008), McChrystal oversaw the capture of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq. As Senator Bob Corker noted in the hearing, "I think frankly that Gen. McChrystal is perhaps the most capable special operations commander that this country has ever produced. If he thought it could be done that way [in Afghanistan], it would be."

At the hearing, when Kerry asked John Nagl to explain the difference between a counterinsurgency campaign and a counter-terror campaign, Nagl said that the "latter is component of former. Counter-terrorism 'focuses on the enemy,' while a counterinsurgency focuses on people who, in turn, provide intelligence about where the enemy is hiding and fighting from. The reason that a counterinsurgency campaign is so much more comprehensive than a counter-terror campaign is that it involves a civilian component to stabilize the government, institutions, and necessities of the populace."

According to Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, most Afghanis want a more involved approach. "When you speak to Afghans on the ground, their fear is not more engagement," he said, "their fear is less engagement . . . fear of abandonment." The problem is that although Afghans support the U.S. troop presence far more than they support the Taliban, the Taliban simply gives the people more services than their own government does. "It's a commonly accepted principle of counterinsurgency theory that if you're losing, you are not being outfought, you are being out-governed," Nagl said.

Nagl thinks that effectively completing this counterinsurgency strategy would take five years and "we should expect to spend over those five years what we spent in last eight years." But Kerry believes that more troops have not improved the situation and that the current light-footprint has been relatively successful: "The goal of the president is to prevent al Qaeda from attacking from Afghanistan and from destabilizing Pakistan. We are doing better in Pakistan and there is no al Qaeda in Afghanistan," he said. "Does that tell us something about lighter footprint success?" When Nagl explained that you can conduct counter-terror, but not counterinsurgency, with a light footprint, Kerry responded, "exactly the point I'm trying to get at . . . you can do counter-terror with a light footprint."

Kerry then appeared to undercut his case for a counter-terror campaign, saying that "the problem of governance may be more serious than the problem of the Taliban." Counterterrorism, as opposed to counterinsurgency, would do little to produce a stable and secure government in Afghanistan. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal writes in his report: "Success demands a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign."

Emily Esfahani Smith, a Collegiate Network Fellow, is an editorial assistant at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.