Rumors have circulated for months in Washington that the US commanders in Afghanistan want more troops and would be sending a formal request to the President. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is supposedly sitting on such a request until later in the year. Vice President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones are said to have expressed doubts about a further troop escalation. It is likely that President Obama will soon face a decision whether to increase US forces in Afghanistan above the 70,000 he has already authorized. When he does, what questions should he ask, what decision criteria should he use?
Before we suggest a way of thinking about this decision: As government officials in the 1990s,we advocated US military intervention in Afghanistan and advised candidate Obama on the need for increased US resources and troops for Afghanistan in 2008. Specifically, we recommended and Senator Obama proposed adding two brigades, about 8000 personnel. Since then, President Obama has authorized over 30,000 additional troops.
This is not, however, a numbers game. There is no precisely right or wrong number of US forces that should be in Afghanistan. Some number will be needed for several years. The issue is whether we are pursuing a strategy that defines our goals and tailors our means to them. Thus far, none of our publicly articulated goals seem to reflect what we are actually doing. Depending upon what you think our goals are, we are either doing too much or too little. If our goal is to deny al Qaeda a safe haven in which it can prepare and plan attacks, it might be possible to achieve that outcome with a much smaller US effort. US Special Forces, tactical aircraft, and drones based in and around the capital of Kabul could target and eliminate the terrorists. A nation building effort would not be necessary for such a counterterrorism strategy.
Yet this is what administration officials have proposed: a counter-insurgency program, creation of a national government, a national army, a democratic process, an economy not based on narcotics. If our goal is foster a strong central government, then we are knowingly pursuing something essentially at odds with Afghan history. A strong Afghan national army would mean doubling the number of trained Afghan military personnel that the US is now struggling to field. According to metrics developed by Gen. David Petraeus, a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan would require 1.3 million troops for a decade. That is five times the size of US, NATO, and Afghan government forces today. No one thinks this is feasible and we are not attempting to do so. A classic counter-insurgency strategy therefore is not in the cards.
Apart from the question of strategy, how long can we sustain a deployment of 75,000 troops, the funding, and the public's casualty tolerance If the US presence in Iraq is cut by two-thirds over the next year, the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan would be about 125,000, more than President Bush deployed. To support that number, a force twice as large would be constantly either preparing to deploy or recovering. Thus, half of US ground forces would be committed to Iraq and Afghanistan for the indefinite future, while Afghanistan emerges as the largest recipient of US foreign aid. An effort of this size enjoys domestic support if the public thinks we're going to win and Congress, the White House and the pundits line up behind the policy. These conditions are already fading. The Administration would be wise to consider a glide path to lower casualties and reduced spending over several years.
In the short term we should continue to attack Taliban and al Qaeda commanders, while offering security to more Afghans. The goal would be to induce Pushtuns in the south and east to disengage from terrorists or violent opponents of the Afghan or Pakistani governments. The Pushtuns must believe that backsliding would cost them financially and militarily. Some US forces would needed as the hammer to enforce these deals for the foreseeable future, but not on the scale required for a nationwide counter-insurgency.
The Obama Administration may not want to say publicly that it is pursuing such a strategy, wanting instead to convince Afghans of all stripes that we are willing to keep a large presence indefinitely. The truth is, however, that we cannot. In deciding whether to accede to requests for more troops, the President should prepare the ground now for an approach that meshes the threat to US security, prospects for success and a sustainable level of funding.