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Two perspectives on the Afghanistan War

6 September 2010

Summary:  Here are two examples of American geopolitical analysis.  Both deserve attention, illustrating the two modes of American thinking about our role in the world.

  1. Afghanistan: Why the Taliban are Winning“, Stratfor, 1 September 2010 — Careful, well-supported, logical.
  2. Staying Power – The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan Beyond 2011“, Michael O’Hanlon, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010 — Must be read to appreciate the delusional nature of his analysis.

(1)  Stratfor

Afghanistan: Why the Taliban are Winning“, Stratfor, 1 September 2010 — Careful, well-supported, logical. — Summary

With additional troops committed and a new strategy in place, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is making its last big push to win the war in Afghanistan. But domestic politics in ISAF troop-contributing nations are limiting the sustainability of these deployments while the Taliban maintain the upper hand. It is not at all clear that incompatibilities between political climates in ISAF countries and military imperatives in Afghanistan can ever be overcome. And nothing the coalition has achieved thus far seems to have resonated with the Taliban as a threat so dangerous and pressing it cannot be waited out.

(2)  Michael O’Hanlon

Staying Power – The U.S. Mission in Afghanistan Beyond 2011“, Michael O’Hanlon, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2010 — Summary:

Americans have growing doubts about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan that U.S. President Barack Obama seems to share. But the United States should and will maintain a major presence in Afghanistan for years to come.

Two excerpts from O’Hanlon’s article

Hanlon starts with the critical but never yet well answered questions of why we fight — and can we win at a reasonable cost.

Over the years, the U.S. mission has lost much of its clarity of purpose.  Although voters and policymakers in the United States and elsewhere remain dedicated to denying al Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan, they have begun debating

  • whether a Taliban takeover would necessarily mean al Qaeda’s return;
  • whether al Qaeda really still seeks an Afghan sanctuary, as it did a decade ago; and
  • whether U.S. forces could contain any future al Qaeda presence through the kinds of drone strikes now commonly employed in Pakistan.

The most pressing question is whether the current strategy can work — in particular, whether a NATO-led military presence of nearly 150,000 troops is consistent with Afghan mores and whether the government of President Hamid Karzai is up to the challenge of governing and keeping order in such a diverse, fractious land.

Such doubts would matter less if U.S. President Barack Obama did not seem to share them.

Here we see the The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.  Willpower brings victory; reasonable doubts – thought and logic – bring defeat.  It’s a common superstition in Washington.  In September 2009 Foreign Policy ran General Kimmitt’s explanation of how willpower will lead to victory in Afghanistan.

Counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that a security force of 600,000 is needed to ensure robust security throughout a country of 30 million people, such as Afghanistan. But any doctrine is only approximate. In the case of Afghanistan, the ratio of 20 security personnel for every 1,000 civilians probably needs to be applied only in those parts of the country where Pashtuns predominate, since only there is the insurgency intense. Among the rest of the population — approximately 55 percent — a ratio of fewer than 10 security personnel for every 1,000 citizens would likely suffice. This implies that security in Afghanistan could be maintained by a competent force of roughly 400,000 troops.

By the end of 2010, ISAF will have nearly 150,000 troops in Afghanistan. The Afghan security forces will number about 250,000, with perhaps 150,000 of those in decent shape or in strong partnership arrangements with NATO troops. That means that there will be roughly 300,000 competent security personnel in place, half foreign and half indigenous — about 100,000 forces shy of the overall requirement of 400,000. Given that shortfall, some parts of the country will have to be left relatively unguarded into 2011. According to current ISAF projections, it will take until late 2011 for Afghan security personnel to number 300,000. Making the force 350,000 strong would take most of 2012, and reaching 400,000 would take until 2013.

… To be sure, these are optimistic estimates. Troop requirements would increase if parts of Afghanistan besides the south and the east proved more dangerous than expected or if the planned ISAF approach proved deficient.

Security forces of 400 thousand people in a nation having a per-capital GDP of $500!  That’s 13 security people per thousand.  To put that in perspective, the US aprox 7 security people per thousand — 641,000 local patrol officers and 1.4 million military — probably more than we can afford.  This implies that Afghanistan will have a foreign-run and paid security service for years or decades to come.  For more about this see About those large and growing Afghanistan security forces…, 26 September 2009.

Anything can happen, but O’Hanlon’s casual assumption that Afghanistan’s people will tolerate this — or that the American people will fund it — shows how his project requires suppressing reasonable doubts.

About the author:  Michael O’Hanlon is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of Brookings’ Afghanistan Index, and, with Hassina Sherjan, of Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.

Posts about our geopolitical experts discussing the War in Afghanistan

  1. Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  2. Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  3. “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  4. Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  5. An expert explains why we must fight in Afghanistan, 11 June 2009
  6. Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  7. “Strategic Calculus and the Afghan War” by George Friedman of Stratfor, 17 July 2009
  8. Exum: “Introducing the Afghanistan Strategy Dialogue”, 8 August 2009
  9. Another attempt to justify our Af-Pak war, and show the path to victory, 31 August 2009
  10. The advocates for the Af-pak war demonstrate their bankruptcy. Will the American public notice?, 1 September 2009
  11. Every day the war’s advocates find new reasons we should fight in Afghanistan!, 7 September 2009
  12. How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009
  13. The three kinds of advocacy for the Af-Pak War, 15 October 2009
  14. Stratfor: The U.S. Challenge in Afghanistan, 21 October 2009
  15. Bernard Finel justifies our crusade in Afghanistan (insufficiently), 24 November 2009
  16. The SecDef gives the definitive analysis of the situation, a must-read, 30 December 2009
  17. Another sad little bit of agitprop, this time from John Nagl, 28 February 2010
  18. A clear view of our Afghanistan War strategy (unfortunately, it’s mad), 16 April 2010
  19. Exum looks at Af-Pak campaign of the Long War, revealing more about ourselves than the foe, 7 June 2010
  20. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan; odds better than 50-50. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010
  21. Statfor discusses “The 30-Year War in Afghanistan”, 2 July 2010

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