An Artificial Bifurcation

by Joshua Foust on 9/28/2009 · 4 comments

Rajiv Chandrasekaran has an interesting opinion piece on the two options supposedly facing Barack Obama: go all-in, or fold. Ignoring the questionable use of poker imagery for a moment, I’m curious how this lines up with the Post’s Ombudsman Andrew Alexander’s very public hand wringing about various forms of social media, saying “nothing we do must call into question the impartiality of our news judgment. We never abandon the guidelines that govern the separation of news from opinion, the importance of fact and objectivity, the appropriate use of language and tone, and other hallmarks of our brand of journalism.”

Well, I don’t know what it means to have a senior and very respected correspondent like Chandrasekaran penning opinion columns—it’s impossible for a reporter of his stature not to have opinions, and frankly, given his experience, I’d rather have them out there than hidden under paragraphs of quibbling text. But whatever—what about his ideas?

"We might as well pack our bags and go home . . . and just keep a few Predators flying overhead to whack the al-Qaeda guys who return," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "There's no point in doing half-measures here."

Well, that’s actually the preferred outcome of a rather growing subset of the punditocracy, so there perhaps needs to be more expressed here about why that is such a bad idea. But it is the thrust of Chandrasekaran’s column: either go hardcore and do it all the way, presumably by sending the four combat brigades to Kandahar only à la plan de Kagans, or withdraw and do nothing.

Chandrasekaran writes off an Obama-ian middle ground:

All three approaches have the appeal of avoiding a significant troop increase — there are now about 68,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan — and the administration could bill any of them as something other than a full retrenchment to simply fighting terrorists. But they run the risk of prolonging the status quo: Without a substantial escalation in forces, U.S. troops would remain in the same sort of slow-bleed situation they are in now, subjected to roadside bomb attacks that kill dozens of military personnel each month while unable to “gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term,” as McChrystal wrote in his assessment.

Waging a successful counterinsurgency campaign with current force levels could prove impossible. The 10,000 Marines deployed to Helmand province and the 4,000 Army soldiers in Stryker armored vehicles who were sent to Kandahar — all among the 21,000 troops authorized by Obama this year — may be able to improve security in the towns and districts where they are operating. But those are just a few spots on the map; there would still be plenty of populated areas in Helmand and Kandahar with few or no NATO troops. It is to those places, districts to the north of where the Strykers are, and to the west of where the Marines are, that the Taliban fighters have retreated. And it is from those places, military officials believe, that the insurgents will seek to destabilize whatever gains the new U.S. forces make.

This is veering into the “it’s too hard” argument I reject—all warfare is risk, and the necessity of taking those risks is why war should never be entered into lightly. The reality is, across vast tracts of the country, the vast majority of U.S. troops are not being utilized effectively—with so must waste built into the system, it would be silly to advocate sending thousands more troops for a marginal increase in troops actually doing counterinsurgency.

So in that sense, I agree with Chandrasekaran—maintaining the status quo is a really bad idea. The challenge is, going all in—sending thousands more troops—is also repeating the status quo, only more so. The troops we have now need to be used differently before we think about sending more. Since most units still do not, despite the protestations of many, actually practice counterinsurgency. Which makes a lot of this discussion moot anyway.

In either case, Chandrasekaran is far too quick to dismiss the non-extreme choices, and far too quick to align with the “double down but only in Kandahar” camp. What would he write if, say, he was being briefed in Jalalabad? Or Khost? Or Kunduz? All of those brigades feel equally strongly that their area is the one most vital to the war effort. The where of reinforcements matters just as much as the if, and the one thing Kandahar does not need is thousands more U.S. troops… it needs the troops there now to work better.

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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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M SHANNON September 28, 2009 at 5:45 pm

“Since most units still do not, despite the protestations of many, actually practice counterinsurgency.”

Perhaps you should be more specific in what you’d like them to do: policing, guarding villages, ambushes, raids, patrolling, advance to contact. FID, construction projects etc. I’m quite sure the soldiers who have been fighting the Taliban and working on development are under the impression they are countering an insurgency and would be surprised to know they were doing something else.

Or is “counter-insurgency” only what Petreaus and his followers say to do?

Dafydd September 29, 2009 at 8:24 am

I think all sensible people should agree that there is a significant military force already in place.

It would be foolish to send reinforcements before a large majority of these troops are effectively deployed to the areas and tasks which McChrystal’s strategy would dictate.

The problem is, that while McChrystal is quite new to the job, the job is around 8 years old. If we haven’t managed to effectively deploy troops up to now, then what will change to make the deployment more effective?

Sending troops to reinforce a failed deployment is like throwing good money after bad.

On the other hand, I see no plan from anywhere on what has to change to make the current deployments effective. Something is broken between the McChrystal strategy and the guys getting shot at. How is that to be fixed?

David M September 29, 2009 at 9:28 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/29/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

M SHANNON September 29, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Dafyyd. Good point. Most troops rarely go off the FOBs and given that most are mechanics, clerks and computer techs etc that’s a good thing. We should also ask ourselves if we want more combat troops interacting with Afghans. The assumption has been made that Afghans want to have more foreign troops around. I think that’s wrong and plunking the average rifle platoon into a village may actually increase support for the insurgents which will increase US casualties which will reduce public support for the war further…

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