How Much Is Enough?

by Joshua Foust on 4/1/2007 · 4 comments

The last time I had touched on learning lessons from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, I had missed one important point: troop levels. To back up a bit, one of my big complaints about military policy in Afghanistan (and, by extension, Iraq) is how it can’t even match the DoD’s own estimations, to say nothing of any other issues that need to be addressed. General Petraeus, who now runs the U.S. military in Iraq, wrote the new counterinsurgency (COIN) manual. In it, he establishes metrics that indicate about 650,000 troops would be needed in Afghanistan for an effective COIN operation.

Funny thing. Turns out that’s the same number the Soviet General Staff thought they’d need to pacify the country. The Politburo capped them at 150,000—which is still three times as many troops as the U.S. has currently there. Funny.

This comes via the excellent Afghanistanica blog, which I just found but am enjoying immensely. His take down of Gary Schroen’s book is fantastic, and confirms my sense (drawn from other accounts of the CIA in Afghanistan) of how he operated. He ends that bit with this caveat, which is supremely important here:

It would be nice if the United States had a competent foreign intelligence agency with knowledgeable employees who would learn the local languages. Especially in regards to parts of the world that hold enormous importance for American foreign policy, security and the economy. This would save the Americans and others much in money and lives. But on an upbeat note, Gary Schroen has retired.

Well said. If only we had more agents who spoke Nuristani.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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jonst April 1, 2007 at 11:12 am

I’m curious about something you imply (or at least that I take you imply) in your post here, and in the post you link to, re lessons learned from the Soviet experience. The actions you suggest that might have been done/considered; i.e. dramatically larger force for what you term ‘effective’ COIN operations…or crossing into Pakistan…or establishing a larger ‘security zone’ between on the Afghan Pakistan border call for dramatic increases in our forces. Mind you, I am not saying you are calling for this…..I repeat you seem to imply it. So, I was curious where you get these forces from?

Joshua Foust April 1, 2007 at 11:23 am

Well, that’s kind of my point. One theme I’ve touched on is that the Iraq occupation has been a critical drain on resources from Afghanistan, and that the DoD is so woefully underfunded for the missions it’s told to undertake that it may have been worth never bothering in the first place. I have no idea how to find 600,000 more troops without draining resources the brass says are critical elsewhere.

Really, what we are reaping in Afghanistan are the disastrous consequences of Donald Rumsfeld’s pared down “Revolution in Military Affairs,” that assumes special forces and local militia are all you’d ever need for foreign policy. Both Iraq and Afghanistan have proven that to be totally false. Replacing him, however, is a Thomas Barnett-inspired “pistol packing peace corps” idea, which is almost as disastrous in that it would permanently blur the line between aid and the military (not a good thing if even third parties would like to remain neutral).

Obviously, a strategy for settling down the western provinces of Pakistan must be put into place. You can’t create a security zone along that border with the forces in place right now… and I’m not convinced you could ever do that. Coopting the local elders into Pakistani society, however—giving them a stake in its outcome instead of treating them like they’re on the margins of society—is I think a promising way of generating positive change, and creating incentives for them to break their alliance with the Taliban.

Anyway, the point I’m making here (and in general) is that specialists in the region knew a 30k force would be pitiful and way too little to achieve anything without a long, drawn out occupation. Yet the Pentagon went ahead with one anyway. That’s it: a failed policy that won’t change so long as the current leadership has a stake in not changing it.

jonst April 2, 2007 at 5:00 am

Ah, while I more than sympathize with the general thrusts of your post/comments regarding Rummy’s ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’; I would argue that the disastrous consequences, you rightfully note, should not be traced back to Rummy. Maybe THROUGH Rummy…but their arise, I argue, from one, and one only, fatal flaw. Namely: for all the flag waving, for all full throated cheering, for all the tinny, metallic, sounding tough guy talk shouted through a bullhorn, for all the pompous, tough guy editorials, for all yellow ribbon pushers and bumper sticker warriors, for all those, and a dozen more examples I could cite, the majority of Americans were not ready for necessary personal sacrifices needed to create the force you rightly imply should have been created. We talked the talk with the best of them, but we did not walk the walk as a society. None of this diminishes numerous sacrifices some Americans made, and continue to make. We want to fix this as a nation? Look in the mirror first.

Joshua Foust April 2, 2007 at 6:14 am

That’s fair – I know Rummy didn’t invent RMA. But, as SecDef for so many years, he was responsible for pushing them through. Your phrasing is, I think, more accurate than mine.

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