The Magazine

Give McChrystal a Fighting Chance

The war effort is succeeding in parts of Afghanistan-with time and troops the gains can be consolidated.

Nov 2, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 07 • By MAX BOOT
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But what about the resentment supposedly engendered by the presence of foreign troops among the notoriously xenophobic population of Afghanistan? Yasin is dismissive: "We haven't seen resentment so far. If the other American troops act as they do here, the United States will succeed in this war."

It is possible, I suppose, to dismiss Yasin's comments as those of a local ally telling American visitors what they want to hear. But there is no lack of self-interested pleading about Afghanistan when it comes to the debate back home. Many Democrats appear eager to minimize our involvement so they can concentrate on health care reform and other domestic priorities. They tell themselves that this is the height of realism because, really, what chance do we have to prevail in the "graveyard of empires"?

If we listen to such advice coming from those who have never set foot in Afghanistan, perhaps it is worthwhile to listen also to the voices of those who are actually here--Afghans and their foreign partners. That's precisely what I did during the course of a 10-day trip across Afghanistan undertaken at the invitation of General David Petraeus. What I heard and saw suggests that many Washington savants are out of touch with the on-the-ground reality.

Yes, winning will be difficult. Tremendous obstacles abound, ranging from the resilience of the Taliban to the ineptitude and corruption of the Afghan government. But it is hardly mission impossible. In areas such as Baraki Barak, U.S. soldiers and civilians have been making impressive progress ever since this summer, when the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan hit 64,000--up from just 32,000 in 2008. (There are now 68,000 troops with the arrival of another brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division devoted to training Afghan soldiers in the south.) But there are still far too few U.S. soldiers here to roll back years of gains by the Taliban in the south and east of the country.

The insurgency is concentrated among the Pashtuns, who number roughly 15 million out of the country's 30 million people. (All such figures are inexact because no census has been taken for decades.) The rule of thumb in the counterinsurgency business is that you need one soldier or cop per 50 civilians. That works out to a requirement for 300,000 security personnel--far below the figure actually deployed. There are 100,000 foreign troops, but 30,000 of them aren't American, and many of those are prevented by national caveats from actually fighting. There are also 184,000 Afghan security personnel--on paper. In practice only 100,000 are actually operational, and the majority of them are police officers who belong to a force that is notoriously ill-trained, underpaid, and corrupt. The Afghan National Army has developed an impressive reputation for fighting hard, but it has only 47,000 troops in the field. However you count, there is a fundamental shortfall of security personnel to combat the well-funded, well-armed Taliban, who operate from secure bases across the border in Pakistan.

Those who oppose General Stanley McChrystal's request for more resources seem to imagine that our troops can somehow sit back on secure bases, train Afghans, and stay out of the line of fire. It's true that standing up the local security forces is our ultimate ticket out of Afghanistan--just as it is in Iraq. But notwithstanding the bravery and growing skill of many Afghan soldiers and police, their forces are simply too small and too ill-equipped to carry the brunt of the battle right now or in the near future. McChrystal is accelerating the growth of the Afghan forces--the army is supposed to reach 134,000 by the fall of 2010--but all such expansions carry major risks. As one senior officer in the Afghan Army told me, there is a serious risk of focusing on "quantity over quality." That is already happening to some extent, with basic training for new soldiers reduced from 27 weeks to just 8 weeks. That makes it all the more imperative that Afghan soldiers also receive on the job training from coalition allies.