In its continuing search for an alternative to General Stanley McChrystal's comprehensive counterinsurgency approach to the war in Afghanistan, and with President Obama having eliminated the minimalist counterterrorism plan of Vice President Joe Biden, the White House has lately been floating a split-the-difference trial balloon: "McChrystal Lite" or, to give the veep his due, "McChrystal for the cities, Biden for the countryside."
Last week the New York Times was allowed a sneak-peak of what this half-pregnant approach might look like. It reported that White House advisers are aiming to defend "about 10 top population centers." A number of press accounts indicate that the number of additional troops would be capped at around 20,000--half the 40,000 recommended by McChrystal--no more than four brigade-sized units and the needed support. The Times also indicated that McChrystal had briefed the White House on how he would employ any reinforcements: "The first two additional brigades would be sent to the south, including one to Kandahar, while a third would be sent to eastern Afghanistan and a fourth would be used flexibly across the nation."
To the Washington punditocracy, half a loaf sounds about right; even if they don't think it's the right strategy, they think it's what Obama will do as a matter of domestic politics. But does it make any military sense?
A troop ceiling of 20,000 reinforcements would present McChrystal with painful choices. To begin with, it would sacrifice urgency, taking longer to achieve any decisive effects--and McChrystal's assessment concluded in August that the coming year was critical. The president's middle-way approach would also force McChrystal to revisit the balance between committing U.S. troops to combat and to training Afghan Army and other security forces; and he might have to reconsider the trade-offs between formal school-house training, embedded training teams, and unit-to-unit partnerships, the approach that proved to be most effective in Iraq. But even if he were to maximize the combat punch of half a surge, he would face challenges in deploying the new forces. Consider these possible courses of action:
McChrystal's planned deployment of additional forces as described in the Times represents a sensible effort on the part of the general to prioritize the most violently contested areas of the country and address them as effectively as possible. Nevertheless, the "two south, one east, one in reserve" disposition would force McChrystal to accept a great deal of risk by spreading the force thin and failing to achieve adequate counterinsurgent-to-population ratios, as a recent study by Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, based on their many trips to the region, makes plain (see www.aei.org/article/101059).
Let's begin with the "two south" slice of this plan. Southern Afghanistan remains the heartland of the insurgency, and it is widely understood that Kandahar City and the surrounding districts of Kandahar Province are the Taliban's center of gravity. The Kagans calculate the U.S., Canadian, and Afghan troops already deployed around the city to be a force of 4,800, which is responsible for maintaining security among a population of 1,015,000. The counterinsurgent-to-population ratio, then, is one to more than 200, or less than a quarter what counterinsurgency doctrine dictates. Unlike Iraqis, Afghans--including the Taliban--traditionally prefer to avoid fighting in their cities. Even so, security in the city is essential, and at the moment only Afghan National Security Forces conduct patrols there, making the ratio inside the city even less favorable. Even if both of the brigades McChrystal intends to send to the south were deployed to the Kandahar City area, they would not improve the counterinsurgent-to-population ratio there enough to have a decisive impact. The Kagans' detailed study estimates that it would take roughly four and a half brigades to reach the desired ratio. It's also worth noting that the Canadians will be withdrawing their forces by mid-2011; if the area is not secure by then, their departure will create a larger gap.