The Afghan Dilemma—House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-MO) describes President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan strategy as “not new” but the “first strategy” in a war that has been under-resourced and “forgotten” since the Bush administration initiated it in 2001. The Afghanistan assessment that General Stanley McChrystal presented to the president reportedly calls for an increase of 10,000 to 80,000 troops. Skelton advocates going big. Large or small, there are no good options as the president decides between counterinsurgency or counterterrorism strategies. The former involves a large troop commitment to protect the Afghan people, defend cities, roads, and bridges, and pursue Al Qaeda. The latter, backed by Vice President Joe Biden, would put far fewer American boots on the ground and use intelligence, special forces, and drones to degrade Al Qaeda.
Blaming Obama—American Enterprise Institute scholar Fred Kagan was one of the intellectual authors of George W. Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which helped stabilize the country as violence spiraled out of control. He was also one of the policy intellectuals who supported the war in Iraq, without which the surge wouldn’t have been needed.
Kagan is selling another surge, dismissing a 20,000 troop increase that Obama is said to be considering. “Who did the homework on 20,000 troops?” Kagan asked at a Rand Corporation seminar in the Russell Senate Office Building. “Only if we define the mission down do we get to 20,000. When President Obama selected General McChrystal to devise a solution, McChrystal came back with recommendations that President Obama didn’t like.”
Intelligence as an Option—Paul Pillar was a national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia when he retired from a 28-year intelligence career in 2005. At the Rand seminar he makes the case for a limited troop deployment. Even with the maximum force increase requested by McChrystal, Pillar said, there will be “a lot of real estate in Afghanistan beyond the reach of our forces where Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups can establish safe houses.” Even if all of Afghanistan were secured there would be havens for terrorists in other failed or failing states, such as Somalia, Yemen, or the Pakistan frontier with Afghanistan. “Defending against terrorist attacks will depend on the day-to-day, less visible non-kinetic work of the intelligence services of the U.S. and its allies,” Pillar said.
Five Years and Five Billion Dollars—Next year the Afghanistan war will become the longest war in U.S. history. Counterinsurgency realists predict that “success” in Afghanistan could require 15 years. In testimony before the House Committee on Armed Services on October 14, Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, referred to a 15-year commitment, adding that it might be possible to negotiate an exit after a shorter campaign. “I think the expectation therefore has to be that if we are going to do this we have to be willing to pay Iraq-scale costs for three to five years at a minimum,” Biddle said.
The cost of the Iraq War when supplemental appropriations are included is approximately $100 billion a year. Casualties in Afghanistan have averaged 100 per year, but ramping up to an Iraq-scale campaign would probably push those numbers closer to the 516-a-year Iraq average. So 1,500 to 2,500 casualties and $300 billion to $500 billion could be the cost of a three- to five-year campaign in Afghanistan.
A Reverse Surge—Rory Stewart, a former British soldier and diplomat, was a coalition administrator in Kabul. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September, he said that 100,000 U.S. troops could neither hold nor garrison a fraction of a country the size of Texas with a rural population scattered across an inhospitable terrain: “The best Afghan policy would be to reduce the number of foreign troops from the current level of 90,000 to far fewer—perhaps 20,000. In that case, two distinct objectives would remain for the international community: development and counterterrorism. Neither would amount to the building of an Afghan state or winning a counterinsurgency campaign. A reduction in troop numbers and a turn away from state-building should not mean total withdrawal: good projects could continue to be undertaken in electricity, water, irrigation, health, education, agriculture, rural development and in other areas favored by development agencies. Even a light U.S. presence could continue to allow for aggressive operations against Al Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan who plan to attack the United States.”