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Too Few Good Men

We could use more troops in Afghanistan.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By GARY SCHMITT
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Afghanistan is a big place: approximately one and half times the size of Iraq with a population roughly the same size as Iraq’s, but more dispersed. Accordingly, the game plan had been to narrow counterinsurgency efforts to a limited number of population centers and commercial routes, predominantly in the southern part of the country, accepting various levels of risk in adjacent areas and other regions. And narrow it is. For example, in the April report to Congress on the Afghan campaign, the Pentagon noted that ISAF had identified 80 “key terrain” districts, along with 41 other “area of interest” districts—out of nearly 400 total districts in the country. But, the “ISAF Joint Command (IJC) assessed that, out of the 121 districts, it had the resources to conduct operations in 48.” And, as Michael O’Hanlon has recently written in Foreign Affairs, while the number of districts with “satisfactory” security has improved modestly over the past nine months, “ISAF currently estimates that only 35 percent of the priority districts have ‘good’ security or better.”

That’s a problem, even as it has been argued that the war against the Taliban is not a country-wide campaign, but is principally focused on the Pashtun belt in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Two recent incidents, however, suggest that the insurgency is not so easily contained. First was the slaughter of a Christian medical team in Badakhshan Province in the ostensibly quiet sector of northern Afghanistan, and then there was the public torture and murder of a pregnant widow in Badghis in northwestern Afghanistan. As Bill Roggio notes, “Just a few years ago, Badghis province wasn’t considered a security problem. But over the past three years, the Taliban have slowly taken control of districts in Badghis and have implemented their brutal version of sharia.” Although the strength of the Taliban and its allies still lies principally in the south and the east, their footprint, as General Petraeus acknowledges, has expanded outside those areas. Since 2005, the Taliban has tripled the number of its shadow governors, which gives the insurgents a presence in virtually every province. According to NATO’s own data, by late 2009 the Taliban was a constant or periodic hostile presence in about half the country, with some capability in the remaining 40 percent. 

There’s also this: Obama has deployed fewer actual counterinsurgents in Afghanistan than Bush did in Iraq. Bush’s surge included 21,500 soldiers and Marines ready for combat; the remaining additional forces consisted mainly of support elements, aviation units, and military police. In contrast, of Obama’s 30,000 just over 15,000 are dedicated, ground-pounding counterinsurgents, with a higher percentage going to support and training. This problem isn’t entirely of Obama’s own making. By the time Bush ordered a troop increase, the supporting military infrastructure in Iraq had been well established, and there was less need to add more “tail” to support combat operations. This has not been so in Afghanistan, where the country’s mountainous and varied geography and its isolated location demand more supporting elements in aviation and logistics. 

Nor does this account for the bumps in the road that mark most military campaigns, such as last February’s clearing operation in Marjah, a onetime Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province. With the Pentagon no doubt pressed to show results quickly and also not to tie down Marines who could be used in other clearing operations, it declared the town effectively cleared of the Taliban after two short weeks. But attempts to turn the town’s security over to Afghan forces and special police in the weeks that followed only resulted in the resurgence of Taliban activity, whipsawing the townspeople in a way that means it will take even longer to assure them that they should bet on their long-term security resting with the Afghan government. Securing Helmand and Kandahar is probably going to require more time and more resources than the optimistic plans set out by General McChrystal. This awareness is reflected in General Petraeus’s new guidelines specifying that ISAF forces will gradually step back from areas that have been pacified instead of trying to hand off the task to the still maturing Afghan forces all at once. 

The shortage of trainers for the Afghan Army and the Afghan police complicates matters further, as does President Karzai’s insistence on the reduction of private contractors performing security missions throughout the country. Add Pakistan’s reluctance to deal decisively with the insurgent safe havens on its side of the border, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that more combat-ready troops are needed if we are to succeed in the Afghan mission. 

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