New Strategy, Not Troops, Needed for Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 8/31/2009 · 10 comments

General Stanley McChrystal has finally come out and said what the rest of us have known for years: there needs to be some fundamentally new thinking in Afghanistan. While the various news stories talk about McChrystal’s desire for a new strategy, all they seem to focus on is the (informed) assumption that he will request new troops in a separate, perhaps followup assessment.

It seems, then, that Gen. McChrystal is taking his cues from Anthony Cordesman, who is out in the Washington Post saying that what we really need is more troops. Like many commentators on McChrystal’s review team, Cordesman comes from a deep background in military studies but knows comparatively little about the vital civil side of the equation—therefore, all the problems he sees are problems of security and not necessarily other things.

What is needed, however, is not necessarily more troops. As I wrote back in January, adding more troops to the mix would only make sense if they were going to serve a new strategy, one fundamentally different from the current, failing, strategy in the country. The biggest sin Gen. McChrystal has committed so far, at least in my view, is that there is actually very little “new” about his command so far, fawning media coverage notwithstanding.

So if the reports of General McChrystal’s report are right, then he is making the right decision to craft a new strategy for the country. The trouble is, to really know how to move forward, simply having an intimate understanding of the Army and military operations will only get you so far. You also have to have an intimate understanding of Afghanistan as well, and that kind of understanding simply wasn’t on the McChrystal review team (nor is it on the many think tank panels that purport to discuss Afghanistan but just rehash vague generalities).

Until the Washington Establishment—McChrystal’s intimacy with it was a major reason he got the job—wakes up and chooses to consult its Afghanistan experts when seeking new ways forward, the war effort will languish. The last thing Afghanistan needs right now is the same tired old generalists making strategy… again.

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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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BruceR August 31, 2009 at 3:21 pm

The other option, I suppose, would be finding out what the Afghan government’s strategy is, and helping them implement that.

I’m not sure we’ll ever succeed in empowering Afghans through an elaborate process of telling them what to do.

Msatwel August 31, 2009 at 6:13 pm


The question of the military’s input in the overall Afghanistan strategy is of critical importance now. Tony Cordesman’s article is a good example. This debate will heat up over the next several weeks and will reach a crescendo—perhaps reaching levels not reached since the heights of the Vietnam war debate. This is why we need to be very wary of the advice which only takes into account a military view point (or for that matter only viewpoints of diplomats). The situation is more complex and significant. While Cordesman makes a number of good points, he misses the essential. Cordesman is correct when he says that Afghanistan has been under-resourced—under-resourcing is in fact Afghanistan’s real story.

However, on the whole, Cordesman comes short, does not propose any feasible strategies and does not seem to understand the dynamics of an extremely complex situation in Afghanistan today. He states that the Afghan security forces need to take over US and NATO forces. Yes, we do need to increase the size and quality of the Afghan forces. But anyone who calls for the Afghan army to take over a regional security situation anytime soon (if ever) does not understand the nature of the threats faced in the region nor the extreme financial and political costs in maintaining a large army – a la Pakistani Army, which is perhaps the reason why Pakistan still harbors the enemy.

Cordesman states that US forces need to “build the provincial, district and local government capabilities that the Kabul government cannot and will not build for them”. In fact, no outside forces (or even civilian “experts”) can actually “build” provincial or local governance. A closer understanding of Afghan history will show that the locals do not accept an Afghan government mingling inside their villages–let alone an outside force telling them how to behave at the local level. No one should talk about Afghanistan is they do not understand this simple fact. We need to stop calling for outside forces to set shop inside Afghan villages and to show people there what governance means. This is a sure recipe for disaster. Instead, via effective development aid and furthering education and training, we need to let the Afghans find their own path and future.

Finally, Cordesman advocates for letting the US military brass do what they need to do there. While the new military leaders are capable individuals, no one should advocate for them alone to decide the direction of the Afghanistan engagement. Afghanistan will never be won by any military strategies. The solution instead includes a military plan as part of a much larger plan. Afghanistan calls for the best of our strategies on all diplomatic, economic and military fronts. And, if the words “regional strategy” did not exist, it needs to be invented for Afghanistan. Engaging India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue is in fact more central to addressing the security situation in Afghanistan than the size of the Afghan army. China, Russia, the Gulf States and the situation in the Central Asian countries plus Iran are all of crucial importance to this particular security issue—this is where diplomacy and open engagement is needed, not military strategies. We can’t solely rely on the capabilities of our military brass—even though they are indeed very capable. Doing so would be misleading the current public debate in tackling the actual challenges of the most complex US foreign policy engagement of post WWII.

Earl Wettstein August 31, 2009 at 8:38 pm

I think we need to let them get back to what their country used to be, not our version of what it should be.
We are not going to change their culture. If we keep putting troops in there, we are in for a long terrible defeat. Learn from Russsia – find a way out. Do we have to admit we “lost?” probably.

Earl Wettstein August 31, 2009 at 8:38 pm

I think we need to let them get back to what their country used to be, not our version of what it should be.
We are not going to change their culture. If we keep putting troops in there, we are in for a long terrible defeat. Learn from Russsia – find a way out.
Do we have to admit we “lost?” probably.

anan August 31, 2009 at 8:47 pm

“Earl Wettstein” why do you use the term lost? Do you think that the GIRoA/ANSF are going to lose anytime soon? Why is the GIRoA/ANSF/ISAF temporarily yielding certain parts of the country to the Taliban, Haqqani and AQ linked networks to focus on a smaller ink stain a loss? As long as the ANA and ANP are growing every day in capabilities and quality . . . how can anyone describe Afghanistan as “lost?”

Why do so many think that unless Afghanistan achieves maximal goals in the short term, it is a “loss”? Perhaps it is international and American excessive expectations that are the problem.

American Ecotech September 1, 2009 at 8:59 am

It’s a tough decision to get out of that war because it has been many years with no end fight at this time, no back-out. I salute the U.S. soldiers who are fighting then in Afghanistan.

Dvid (Mhd.Dawood) September 1, 2009 at 8:07 pm

I want to have a very short comment on this one which could be a great lesson for Gen Stanley MecChrystal!
if you want to know how to defeat your enemies in Afghanistan you need to learn Afghani way of fighting which I dont think you know because all your advisors who have the responsiblity to teach you stuff about Afghanistan so you can make right dicisions dont know themselves.
if you are seriouse about winning this war please find someone honest in Afghanistan to teach you the ropes.

Dvid (Mhd.Dawood) September 1, 2009 at 8:19 pm

as I said before anything you do will result in a failure for this mission because you dont know how to do it in the Afghani way and there is a term in politics called Ground Realities which are always overshadowed in Afghanistans war most of your troops sent out here are trained for IRAQ and you are using them in AFGHANISTAN how stupid dicisions are these and i dont know whos ideas are these please be a little seriouse about what is going on over here.

Toryalay Shirzay September 1, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Dvid, you are making a very important point regarding this war and it should be heard at the highest level.There are many of us who sincerely wish the US/NATO succeed in this war in Afghanistan.Yet the cruel reality is that those of us who know how to win this war are sitting by the sideline while those who don’t know much about winning this war have all the responsibilities and calling all the shots.At this critical junction,when serious decisions are soon going to be made,the American officials owe it to their soldiers to at least listen to us by leaving contact info right here as we don’t know who to contact.

anan September 1, 2009 at 10:56 pm

Dvid (Mhd.Dawood), do the top flag general officers of the ANP and ANA know the”Afghani way of fighting?” Could you give your personal assessment of some of them?

Some of the flag officers I would be particularly interested in hearing your assessment regarding are:
-Chief of the General Staff, General Bismillah Mohammadi Khan
-Vice Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Mohammad Eshaq Noori
-General Staff Chief of Intelligence, Major General Abdul Khaliq Faryad
-General Staff Chief of Operations, Lieutenant General Shir Mohammad Karimi
-Afghan National Army Training Command, Major General Aminullah Karim

Thanks for your time Dvid (Mhd.Dawood.)

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