The Magazine

Afghanistan Myths

What Congress and the media think that isn't so.

Nov 23, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 10 • By TOM COTTON
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Early this month, I traveled to Washington with Vets for Freedom to advocate for General Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 to 60,000 more troops in Afghanistan. I returned from Afghanistan last summer and, along with other veterans of that theater, wanted to share my experience with policymakers.

During our meetings in Congress and at the White House, I was surprised by how widespread several misperceptions were. Though most officials seemed sincere, these myths are distorting the debate about General McChrystal's request. Here are some of the most common:

A counterterrorism campaign is an effective alternative to counterinsurgency. Some analysts believe precision counterterrorism strikes can defeat al Qaeda without a simultaneous counter-insurgency. This logic is faulty for several reasons.

First, General McChrystal is a counterterrorism expert, yet he has proposed a full-spectrum counterinsurgency. A decorated Green Beret, he has commanded the Army's Ranger Regiment, Delta Force, and Navy SEALs. His recommendation is entitled to great weight.

Second, a counterterrorism-only approach will lack actionable intelligence. Senior al Qaeda operatives are extremely hard to track at a distance: They move constantly, live among fierce loyalists, and avoid phones, radios, and computers. The best intelligence tends to come as tips from cooperative locals who have come to trust troops on the ground. Locals can't provide such tips if there are no troops to give them to.

Third, our counterterrorism tools have fatal limitations. Predator drones and special-operations forces have limited ranges and need in-country bases, which generate large protective forces, vulnerable supply lines, and sensitive political questions. Aerial or naval attacks require even better intelligence and risk more self-defeating civilian casualties. To be sure, all these tools are potent, but primarily in conjunction with forward-deployed counterinsurgent forces.

The Afghan people don't want us there. Although we frequently hear that the fiercely tribal and proud Afghans instinctively rebel against foreign forces, I did not encounter this sentiment during my deployment. Afghans rarely objected to our presence, but they did complain that we haven't provided basic security. When I asked if they would accept more American troops in exchange for improved security, the overwhelming answer was yes.

Our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that the key issue to the population isn't troop numbers, but troop effectiveness. Afghanistan faces a growing insurgency after eight years of limited deployments. Similarly, violence grew in Iraq for years, until the surge contained it. In this light, we now have the worst possible situation in Afghanistan: enough troops to raise Afghans' expectations, but not enough to protect them.

America cannot win a war in Afghanistan, the "graveyard of empires." How can America succeed where Alexander the Great, the British, and the Soviet Union struggled? This refrain belongs, as they say now in the military, in the graveyard of analogies.

The Soviets, in particular, teach us how not to win in Afghanistan. A heavily mechanized force, the Red Army was ill-suited for Afghanistan's treacherous terrain, and it was dependent on long, vulnerable supply lines. It also discouraged innovative junior leadership, which is critical against an insurgency. To compensate, the Soviets employed vicious, massively destructive tactics that inflamed the Afghan people and still scar the country with depopulated valleys and adult amputees maimed as children by toy-shaped mines.

Our present way of war couldn't be more different. We deploy light and wheeled infantry to Afghanistan, making our tactics more flexible, our supply lines shorter, and our soldiers more engaged with the locals. We also radically decentralize decision-making authority to our junior soldiers and leaders, who increasingly can draw on years of combat experience.

In short, America has a counter-insurgency strategy, whereas the Soviet Union had a genocide strategy. Afghans I spoke with always recognized the difference, reviled the Russians, and respected our troops.

America needs a new political partner before committing more troops. This myth stands counterinsurgency doctrine on its head. A government battling an insurgency is by definition weak, else the insurgency would never have gained strength. We must accept this inescapable fact and focus on helping improve President Hamid Karzai's government, not use it as an excuse to abandon his government.