Talk About Underselling the Problem

by Joshua Foust on 11/24/2008 · 4 comments

Does anyone else remember in January of 2007—nearly two years ago, in fact—when I was worrying that the “Surge” in Iraq was going to siphon away desperately needed troops and assets? Glancing through the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, I lamented just how undersold Afghanistan has been:

NATO mustered up about 40,000 troops to occupy the troubled Kosovo province of Serbia (an area in which troops remain today, barely keeping a lid on the simmering and murderous ethnic tensions). Kosovo has about 2 million people. Afghanistan, a country of about 31 million (according to the CIA), received about 30,000 NATO troops. Though the comparison is a bit unfair, to achieve the same troops per capita as Kosovo would require well over 600,000 troops—far in excess of anything any number of countries would be willing to deploy. Has anyone in history been able to pacify a restless (to put it charitably) country of over 30 million with a mere 30,000 troops? That’s less than one troop per thousand people, sheer foolishness for a military occupation.

Things have changed a bit since there. There are about 60,000 troops in Afghanistan, one per 500 or so. And there are about 70,000 or so ANA troops and around 70,000 ANP officers. So there is a grand total of something like 200,000 total security forces in the country, though I would honestly be surprised if even half were involved in any sort of applied counterinsurgency (I’m including U.S. troops in this as well).

This is context for an interesting post at WPR by Judah Grunstein:

I usually don’t do any posting over the weekend, but that doesn’t mean the internal content management system gets shut down. To give an example, a not-so-little number kept rattling around in the cranium the past couple of days: 162,000. That’s the end strength goal the Dept. of Defense has now set for the Afghan National Army by 2010, in order to provide the manpower needed to adequately support U.S.-NATO operations once “surged.” Since Afghanistan’s population, according to the latest CIA Factbook estimates, is 32.7 million, that’s roughly the size, per capita, of the combined American military (including the Air Force and Navy)…

Meanwhile, what’s left unexamined is the conflict between the national command structure of the Afghan army and the increasing consensus that the most effective approach to counterinsurgency in the country will engage on the local level of tribal authority.

I think, despite his deep skepticism, he might be underselling the problems even here. There is certainly a fundamental clash between imposing a national command structure on a country used to hyperlocal communities (I shy away from describing Afghanistan as “tribal” or arguing that tribal authority is essential, because a lot of local leaders are not explicitly so—see here, for example). But there is also a major issue with growing the numbers of international troops with a disordered mashup of unrelated chains of command. You can’t coordinate an effective strategy like that.

But it goes deeper still. The Defense Department wants about 162,000 ANA, Afghan National Army. In 2010, that will cost more than Afghanistan’s total GDP. Literally, the U.S. government’s big plan is to build an Afghan security force whose cost exceeds the total economic output of the country, and their plan is to sell that as a sustainable and responsible solution to the insurgency.

You could rephrase that plan another way, which has become depressingly familiar of late: assume infinite resources. Local troops are great, but you gotta start small—and give it time. Flooding the country with a bunch of corrupt cops will not help Afghanistan, and just very well might set us back even further.

Kosovo was not settled by recreating an America-sized army of locals. It was settled—even if only partially (Afghanistan would be FAR better off if it only had Kosovo’s problems)—through a concerted and massive imposition of force followed by a well-funded international presence… two things that have been lacking from Afghanistan’s first 86 months of American occupation. It is too late for a massive imposition of force—that would be counterproductive. But it is not too late for an increase in the international presence… if done right. Flooding Kabul with a few thousand 20-something starry eyed development idealists is not the answer. Adding enough troops to secure border regions from infiltration, on the other hand, very well might be.

Update: I made a minor error, in that I attributed the DOD’s desired end state to the State Department, and it is only the Army, not the Army and various police forces. I apologize. However, that makes the desired end state even worse, and the cost of maintaining such a security force still vastly exceeds Afghanistan’s sum total economic output.

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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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Ron November 24, 2008 at 11:00 am

Mind that ‘Kosovo’ was never solved. It is a big mess. Still part of Serbia according to UN resolution 1244. The EU has to take over, but hey, EU also needs UN approaval.

The Kosovo policy is a mess! The US and UK breach international law themselves. Russian is following the example in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The solution? Real negotiations and stop breaching international law!

Eric Johnson November 24, 2008 at 11:32 am

There are several issues that makes Afghanistan a far different case than Kosovo. One of the first being Yugoslav military and paramilitary forces differentiated themselves from the local populace. Second, the Yugoslav-Serb forces were acting on the overt behest of the Yugoslav government and third, after an intensive bombing campaign, the Yugoslav Government accepted conditions for the entry of KFOR. Nothing like this was in play in Afghanistan.

A similarity to Kosovo can be made, but only from the perspective of NATO members. Though there are a plethora of NATO members who have sent troops to Afghanistan, very few member states have sent “combat troops.” This is very similar to the KFOR model. Most are relagated to working inside the wire and will not participate in any type of counter-insurgency role. They are more than willing to suck funds from their U.S. ally however.

As for COIN and U.S. Forces: in 2006 every unit that I was imbedded with outside the wire, was conducting COIN. They might not have known that they were using the COIN model, but it was definitely the techniques outlined in FM 3-24. That said, COIN is nothing new or earth shattering. COIN has been used since the time of Sun Tzu. General Patreaus simply researched techniques used since insurgency warfare began, and compiled them in an easy to understand document.

Joshua Foust November 24, 2008 at 11:41 am

Hey guys, I only mentioned Kosovo to highlight the commitment by NATO. They scrounged up 30% more troops for a tiny breakaway province of Serbia than they could for the home base for modern transnational terrorism. That’s telling.

As for COIN, I’m talking specifically about rumors circulating about a few units here and there. I’m hesitant to use more information, since it is just assertions by people who have returned from certain FOBs, and by possibly identifying them I could put a whole network of people at risk. But regardless of what the case may have been for the units in Afghanistan in 2006, there is at least enough rumbling about the units there now for some of that to get back to me.

Also remember that not all units go outside the wire.

Eric Johnson November 25, 2008 at 11:29 am

I believe we are still talking symptoms and not discussing the root cause of Afghanistan’s situation: Pakistan’s NWFP and FATA. We can beef up the border region all we want, but it won’t stop the movement of insurgents through the mountain passes. The Soviets tried this with 100,000+ troops and were unsuccessful. We can’t even stop the flow of Mexicans into the United States and we know the territory and people.

The worse case scenerio: beefing up the border actually slows commerce between Pakistan and Afghanistan, damaging an already fragile economy and tipping the scales even more against the Coalition.

The United States needs to determine how we are going to deal with an increasingly hostile and impotent Pakistani Government and determine how we are going to address the NWFP and FATA issue of safe haven for recruitment, logistics and ideology.

Remember: we can kill all we want, they will make more…

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