Friday, November 06, 2009

In Afghanistan, troop numbers should be based on strategy

Guest post by Jared Stancombe

Jared Stancombe is a 2009 graduate of Indiana University, where his studies focused on peace and conflict studies in Northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. His other academic interests include counterinsurgency and complex military operations. He is currently an analyst for a U.S. government agency responsible for national security and is in the officer selection process for the United States Marine Corps. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Ed. note: This post is the second in a series by Jared on Afghanistan and the Afghan War. You can find the first here. -- MJWS


Critics of President Obama have continuously stated that he is hesitating in sending tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan where they are "needed." But Obama realizes he must be careful. He also realizes that any further deployment of military forces should be oriented around a clear strategy. He does not want to repeat the same mistakes of the previous administration. However, the strategy of the Obama Administration and the U.S. military in Afghanistan remains unclear. There are two options -- counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency, and both require vastly different assets in scale and scope.

Counterinsurgency warfare is inherently costly in terms of lives, resources, and political will. Obama must calculate whether or not the American public is willing to see a counterinsurgency through. It would cost hundreds of billions of dollars in both military and non-military expenditures. Combat would take a lateral role along with humanitarian aid, economic development, and government capacity-building as the Afghan government and International Security Assistance Forces try to separate the population from the insurgents.

Counter-terrorism would require more of a fine-toothed comb rather than the coarse brush of counterinsurgency. A counter-terrorism strategy would be oriented around defeating, capturing, or killing al Qaeda insurgents wherever they reside. Special Forces would take a primary role as direct action and foreign military assistance in terms of training and assets would be primary tactics to disrupt and possibly eliminate the insurgents' ability to operate.

Troop numbers must be allocated within a framework of strategy. Counterinsurgency takes orders of magnitude more troops than counter-terrorism. If Obama chooses to continue with the counterinsurgency strategy, he must devote any and all resources necessary to see the strategy through. The decision to send troops into harms way should never be a political decision, and if the strategy calls for 60,000 more troops, then 60,000 troops should be deployed. If Obama chooses the counter-terrorism strategy, then troop numbers should be based upon how many are needed to support security operations, direct action raids to kill or capture insurgents, and to train the Afghan National Security Forces.

Obama may take on a hybrid approach that takes into account the lack of development and the lack of population density in the country. Counterinsurgency is inherently "population-centric," meaning that military forces seek to isolate the insurgents from the population. However, in extreme rural areas where insurgents find safe haven, counter-terrorism tactics may be necessary. Obama has recently ordered a review of all provinces in Afghanistan , and his administration is in the process of creating a winnable strategy that is based upon the situation, rather than politics or ideology.

The strategy should dictate the amount of troops needed. While the situation on the ground is becoming more dangerous seemingly by the day, U.S. policymakers should not send troops based upon knee-jerk reactions. Obama is doing the right thing by taking the whole situation in context, rather than by basing his decisions upon recent tragedies. Cool, calm leadership is needed, even as the situation becomes worse. But the situation will become increasingly worse if we have troops in Afghanistan with no clear strategy.

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