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Half-Measures Won't Work

11:23 AM, Oct 2, 2009 • By AARON MACLEAN
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During the course of the past week the Washington Post has run a series of stories which are the product of a campaign of on-the-record interviews and coordinated on-background leaks from administration officials, the overall aim of which is to diminish General McChrystal's case for a better resourced counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, and prepare the public for some other option. At an extreme, that other option appears to be a drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan and a return to a 1990s-style "counterterrorism" strategy of air strikes and special operations missions. Though this approach would be both ineffective and, with respect to our obligations to the Afghan people, immoral, it at least has the virtue that U.S. casualties in the South Asian theater would be limited. The same cannot be said for the approach floated in the most recent Post story:

According to White House officials involved in the meeting, Vice President Biden offered some of the more pointed challenges to McChrystal, who attended the session by video link from Kabul. One official said Biden played the role of "skeptic in chief," while other top officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, were muted in their comments [...]

Biden has argued against increasing the number of U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, currently scheduled to total 68,000 by the end of the year. He favors preserving the current force levels, stepping up Predator drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and increasing training for Afghan forces. Like many congressional Democrats, Biden is concerned that deploying more U.S. troops could be counterproductive, giving the Taliban more fodder to foment public opposition to the foreign occupation.

Among the key phrases here is "preserving the current forces levels." At a time when the senior commander on the ground in Afghanistan is saying that he does not have enough troops to accomplish his counterinsurgency mission, administration officials are seriously arguing neither to increase nor decrease his resources, but simply to retask the current force with a mission oriented toward training Afghans and counterterrorism.

The Post's description of this retasking amounts to nothing more than a series of under-examined canards. We are to step up drone strikes: yet as the Pakistani and Afghan intelligence services--along with local civilians--trust us less, deducing correctly that we are there only for ourselves and not for their security, our intelligence will grow weaker. We are to increase the training (and, presumably, the size) of Afghan security forces: yet, as was demonstrated again and again in Iraq, recruiting and training local forces is something that cannot be rushed. Doing so leads to all sorts of unacceptable consequences, like units which mutiny and collapse in the face of the enemy. Developing the Afghan army is absolutely a priority--indeed, in the long run, it is the leading priority--but in the short run space must be created by Coalition forces providing security in areas where the Afghan Army does not have the forces or capabilities to do so. Security must come first and run concurrent with other goals, and at this stage, only NATO and the United States have the capability to provide it.

Finally, the notion that increased troop levels will be a propaganda coup for the Taliban is precisely the same argument made before the surge in Iraq. Those who made it at that time were wrong (as has been shown by Iraq's remarkable political gains, made under the umbrella of American security) and those who are making the same case now--mostly the same individuals--are wrong now. In fact, after observing how increased troop levels not only failed to worsen the insurgency in Iraq, but were decisive in its defeat, it is not a little bit maddening to see the same misleading case proposed in very similar circumstances.

The opposition to increasing troop levels is aggravated only by the failure to commit to the other extreme, of withdrawing and leaving Afghanistan to the consequences of a pure counterterrorism campaign. Never mind that General McChrystal recently commanded all U.S. Special Operations units, so he would be a leading authority on the viability of such an approach. Consider instead that we are planning to commit those forces that we have in country to increased casualties in the middle to long run. Wishful thinking will not change the following facts: that Afghanistan is in the throes of a serious insurgency, that we know how to defeat insurgencies, and that deviating from proven practices in this matter will lead to increased instability in that country and thus to increased danger for our troops. We did not understand how to fight this kind of war in 2004, and the consequences of our ignorance were unforgiving. We know these things now, so why are we still considering half-measures?