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.
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.