The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, famously said in 2007 that “in Afghanistan, we do what we can. In Iraq, we do what we must.” That strategic view was supposed to change when Barack Obama was elected president. It was candidate Obama, after all, who argued that the war in Iraq was the wrong war to be fighting, and a significant distraction from the far more important conflict in Afghanistan.
Accordingly, the new president announced in March 2009 that he would add to the 30,000 American forces already in theater another 21,000 troops, and then, rejecting Vice President Biden’s advice to scale back the war effort, decided last December to add 30,000 more. The only real criticism from war supporters at the time focused on the president’s scheduled July 2011 troop drawdown.
But there is also the equally important issue of whether the number of troops to be deployed is in fact enough to wage a successful counterinsurgency. And just as the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, as the troops fighting in Afghanistan are known, General David Petraeus, has suggested that next July’s drawdown date might not be set in stone, it would also be useful to revisit the number of American troops committed to Afghanistan. After all, the 30,000 additional troops the president called for last December were less than the 40,000 recommended by Petraeus’s predecessor, General Stanley McChrystal.
At the time, the president’s team argued that our allies would make up the deficit. In December 2009, however, the number of non-American troops stood at 38,370, and as of June, the figure was up by less than 3,000. Even this limited increase, moreover, included few forces ready for frontline counter-insurgency duty. And since then, 1,500 Dutch combat soldiers have left Afghanistan, another 2,800 Canadian forces will be leaving in 2011, and the new government in London is already talking about beginning a drawdown as early as next year. The increased allied contribution—both in real numbers and actual combat capacity—is largely illusory.
Of course, just having enough “boots on the ground” does not guarantee a successful counterinsurgency. As the French discovered in Algeria and the Russians in Chechnya, troop levels alone are not enough to win an irregular war. But numbers matter. While it is important to have a sophisticated understanding of the “human terrain” of local customs, relations, and personalities, counterinsurgency campaigns require sufficient forces to clear and hold, and to do so for an extended period of time.
Exactly how many troops are needed to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign has been the subject of a considerable amount of research over the last several years. Some studies focus on the ratio of counterinsurgent forces to insurgents, but since the center of gravity of a successful counterinsurgency campaign is in winning the hearts and minds of the civilian population, most research looks at force-to-civilian ratios. The number usually given is one counterinsurgent per 50 civilians, or 20 per 1,000—a ratio supported by recent history.
For peacekeeping and stabilization efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo, the force to population ratio was 19:1,000. More pertinently, the summer following President Bush’s January 2007 decision to surge troops in Iraq, the ratio of combined security forces in Iraq (182,000 coalition forces, 278,000 Iraqi security forces and tens of thousands of the Sons of Iraq) to a population of 27.5 million was virtually dead on the 20:1,000 mark. By April 2009, the numbers were closer to 29:1,000.
In comparison, the ratio for Afghanistan at the end of 2009 was only 9:1,000. By the fall of 2010, American force levels will be just shy of 100,000. Combined with allied and partner-nation contributions of some 45,000 troops (many of which are noncombat), 134,000 Afghan soldiers and 109,000 Afghan national policemen (both still on a steep learning curve), the total number of security forces will be less than 390,000, or 280,000 troops short of meeting that 1:20 ratio for an Afghan population of about 33 million.