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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This dynamic played out in Iraq. When added troops and improved security there, we also pursued corrupt officials, whether to prosecute them or to pressure them with the threat of prosecution to improve their performance. In Afghanistan, which today depends more heavily on the coalition for security and funding than did Iraq, we have even more leverage to root out corruption and promote competent, honest government.

Specific reforms can also help. For example, the president appoints provincial and district governors, which makes many unresponsive to their constituents. Political reform to allow for local elections will tie the government more closely to the people and tribal leadership. This kind of ground-up reform succeeded in Iraq and can succeed in Afghanistan.

We should not put troops in harm's way without thorough debate. True, but we already have 68,000 troops very much in harm's way, and they urgently need reinforcements. The continuing delay demoralizes those soldiers and puts them at greater risk. Also, our allies among the Afghan people and government and in the Pakistani government are wondering if America is truly committed to victory. According to General McChrystal, the security situation is deteriorating and may be irreversible unless we can seize the initiative in the next year--and he made that assessment in August. To put it bluntly, we are not winning in Afghanistan, and without more troops we will lose.

Practically, too, the military needs to begin preparing for this deployment now. Afghanistan's extreme terrain and weather, along with its rudimentary infrastructure, mean the deployment will take many months. Likewise, the military's Spartan bases need significant expansion to accommodate new troops.

The military will break if we send more troops to Afghanistan. This fear, heard often about Iraq in 2004-06, is no truer now than it was then. At the 2007 peak, the United States had 200,000 troops deployed to Iraq (170,000) and Afghanistan (30,000). Currently, there are 110,000 troops in Iraq and 68,000 in Afghanistan, well below that peak. And 60,000 troops are expected to leave Iraq by next August as more troops flow into Afghanistan. Thus, overall deployed troop levels in 2010 will remain the same or fall.

The Army has also grown to accommodate repeated deployments. It expanded over the last two years from 512,000 to 547,000 soldiers and now plans to add another 22,000 troops by 2012. Further, it just exceeded its annual recruitment and retention goals, hardly the stuff of a broken Army.

To be sure, our military needs to grow in both size and funding to reflect wartime priorities and alleviate the stress of repeated deployments. But the quickest way to break the military is to lose a war.

In a country where firsthand knowledge of Afghanistan and its people is scarce, it is understandable that these myths have gained currency. But they are just that--myths--and should not be allowed to paralyze our war effort when victory is eminently achievable.

Tom Cotton was an Army infantry officer from 2005-09. He returned from Afghanistan in July.