As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Soldiers

According to Tom Andrews, the McChrystal strategy in Afghanistan would need just under that many to carry out the mission:

Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal's classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

This bombshell was dropped by NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC's Morning Joe on Wednesday:

The numbers are really pretty horrifying. What they say, embedded in this report by McChrystal, is they would need 500,000 troops - boots on the ground - and five years to do the job. No one expects that the Afghan Army could step up to that. Are we gonna put even half that of U.S. troops there, and NATO forces? No way. [Morning Joe, September 23, 2009]

Spencer Ackerman cautions against reading too much into the numbers, saying that they would include Afghan Army and police boots on the ground, which in McChrystal's ultimate vision reaches 400,000. So we're talking about 100,000 coalition troops for five years, which roughly correlates to current levels. However, the Afghan security forces that make up 4/5 of this commitment, which is aspirational and not concrete at the moment, are 90% illiterate, frequently desert their posts and simply cannot be relied upon as a fighting force.

What is there to show for all this remarkably expensive training? Although in Washington they may talk about the 90,000 soldiers in the Afghan National Army, no one has reported actually seeing such an army anywhere in Afghanistan. When 4,000 U.S. Marines were sent into Helmand Province in July to take on the Taliban in what is considered one of its strongholds, accompanying them were only about 600 Afghan security forces, some of whom were police. Why, you might ask, didn't the ANA, 90,000 strong after eight years of training and mentoring, handle Helmand on its own? No explanation has been offered. American and NATO officers often complain that Afghan army units are simply not ready to "operate independently," but no one ever speaks to the simple question: Where are they?

My educated guess is that such an army simply does not exist. It may well be true that Afghan men have gone through some version of "Basic Warrior Training" 90,000 times or more. When I was teaching in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2006, I knew men who repeatedly went through ANA training to get the promised Kalashnikov and the pay. Then they went home for a while and often returned some weeks later to enlist again under a different name.

In a country where 40 percent of men are unemployed, joining the ANA for 10 weeks is the best game in town. It relieves the poverty of many families every time the man of the family goes back to basic training, but it's a needlessly complicated way to unintentionally deliver such minimal humanitarian aid. Some of these circulating soldiers are aging former mujahidin -- the Islamist fundamentalists the U.S. once paid to fight the Soviets -- and many are undoubtedly Taliban.

In addition, maintaining a 400,000-strong security force would probably take three times the gross national product of the country at a minimum. It's naive to the extreme to assume that the Afghans will live up to the 400,000 end of the bargain, and similarly to assume that McChrystal would not seek reinforcements from American troops should the Afghan security forces falter. Putting the number 400,000 Afghan security forces on a piece of paper and expecting them to deliver in any meaningful way is as silly as expecting that they have a legitimate government to defend.

Which means that US military might and treasure will get dragged in once again to another futile war, with an escalation bringing mostly destruction to Afghanistan instead of development. It is for this reason - and maybe others - that the President may be rethinking such a commitment. Dan Froomkin has a superb post about how the President could actually lead on this issue by changing his mind.

Should Obama actually change his mind about Afghanistan, our elite journalists -- obsessed as they are with how the game is played -- will almost inevitably characterize this as vacillation and declare it a sign of political weakness. But that really misses the point.

The most important thing to keep in mind here is that over the last several months, what's emerged when it comes to Afghan policy is a sort of consensus of the realists -- from across the political spectrum. The consensus: That our national interests in Afghanistan are pretty limited and that the harder we try to change things over there, the more resistance we face; that Afghanistan, after eight years of U.S. occupation, has become a Vietnam-like quagmire where escalation only leads to more escalation, not victory; and that what little we could possibly accomplish there is not worth more American blood [...]

Another important thing that could happen here is that, by fully explaining his decision, Obama could go a long way toward restoring a balanced and rational sense of what it means to "support the troops." Former president George W. Bush and his political henchmen used that phrase as a bludgeon to beat Democrats into submission on any issue even vaguely related to national security -- even when it actually resulted in putting the troops in greater danger. Most notably, Bush insisted that once troops had been committed to Iraq, he bore the responsibility to make sure they had not died in vain -- and that anything short of victory would be a betrayal of those soldiers who had already made the ultimate sacrifice. Democrats were way too terrified to demand a pullout from Iraq, even when they controlled Congress, for fear of being accused of undercutting our brave fighting men and women.

It would be a sign of strength and not weakness to base strategy on the available evidence, and change it when the evidence points in that direction. It may not get you far in the Washington commentariat and foreign policy establishment, where only bombing countries to smithereens and sending in every able-bodied man and woman in America halfway around the world are seen as serious and acceptable options. But it would reflect strength, nonetheless.

The McChrystal troop request should reach the Pentagon within days. So we'll see if the President bends to the will of the neocon-establishment complex, or makes his own assessment. The shitstorm that would ensue if he nixes the counter-insurgency strategy would make the health care town halls look like (actual) tea parties. So Froomkin's take provides a response that will need to be echoed.

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