As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
The following dispatch comes from John Nagl, a retired military officer and author of Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. Nagl is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
How the US Can Win in Afghanistan; Lessons from Iraq
Afghanistan is not just the base from which Al Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11; it is also the key to stability in Pakistan, which is the only Islamic country known to possess nuclear weapons. The security of those weapons and the stability of Pakistan would be vital American national interests even if Osama bin Laden and his associates were not hiding in the lawless Afghan-Pakistan border region and plotting their next attack.
Our failure to help build a responsible government in Afghanistan in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal allowed terror to grow unchecked in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Our failure to win the war there today could have even more serious consequences. Success in Afghanistan will require a degree of effort we have not yet contemplated and decades of commitment—but the alternative is truly horrifying to contemplate.
The remarkable decline in violence in Iraq over the past 18 months provides a glimpse of what a post-American Iraq will look like—and suggests the amount of effort and time that will likely be required to create similar possibilities in Afghanistan.
The status of forces agreement that will govern the activities of American troops in Iraq after the expiration of the United Nations mandate on December 31 is likely to place significant restrictions on American freedom of action. Rather than having US forces in the lead, this world will be defined principally by more-capable Iraqi security forces with coalition forces in support. A responsible drawdown and a reorientation of the American mission away from combat and toward advising Iraqi forces stand a good chance of advancing our interests in Iraq at acceptable costs.
Under this model, embedded military advisers will train, equip, and advise Iraqis to conduct counterinsurgency, rather than conducting it themselves. US advisers, Special Forces units to conduct counterterrorism missions, and combat enablers such as fixed and rotary wing aircraft will likely be required for some years to come—but the face of the security forces will increasingly be an Iraqi one as Americans fade into the background.
Achieving this state of affairs took years of effort. Developing the Iraqi security forces to the point that they can take lead in counterinsurgency operations (as most now can) and so that they can assume control of the majority of Iraqi provinces, as they now have, was an extraordinary accomplishment. Iraqi forces still suffer from significant shortcomings including sectarianism, training and planning difficulties, and logistical challenges.
Building the Afghan security forces to even a similar level of competence will take significantly more time, and some hard calculations: Their projected end strength, even after recent plus-ups, is about half of the strength of existing Iraqi security forces, although Afghanistan is larger than Iraq in both square miles and population. Furthermore, the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan benefits from far more substantial external support even than did the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Making war on rebellion is messy and slow, and fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan—like the one in Iraq—will be an effort of many years.
Increasing our efforts to train and equip Afghan security forces so that they can assume the majority of the cost of the campaign more rapidly will be an expensive proposition in both lives and treasure, but the payoff will be a shorter campaign. The key to winning hard wars of insurgency is protecting the population—initially with our forces and, when they have been built, with forces of the host country. This is not a mission that our armed forces are optimized to conduct, but it is one in which they must succeed.