Today’s NY Times op-ed page featured two opposing arguments on the way ahead in Afghanistan. Both are worth a read:
Max Boot highlights two examples of recent success where additional troops have helped to dramatically improve not only the security situation, but also made gains in terms of governance (see his article here). He argues that the success of the Marines’ 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in the small village of Nawa can be duplicated across the country if GEN McChrystal is given enough troops. For more detail on the success of the Marines in Nawa and its potential implications, see Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s article in the Washington Post here.
Arguing the other side, Nick Kristof frames his argument around the concept that much of the insurgency is fueled by resentment of US forces that are viewed as occupiers (especially by Pashtuns who form the core of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan). He makes a great point when he asks: “if we can’t even hand out billions of dollars [in Pakistan] without triggering nationalistic resentment, don’t expect a benign reaction to tens of thousands of additional American troops [in Afghanistan].”
Kristof’s argument against the surge is probably one of the best I’ve read to date. One particular point really struck me and is worth quoting at length:
“The American military has become far more sensitive to Afghan sensibilities in the last few years, and there are some first-rate commanders on the ground who cooperate well with local Pashtun leaders. That creates genuine stability. But all commanders cannot be above average, and a heavier military footprint almost inevitably leads to more casualties, irritation and recruitment for the Taliban.”
This is a point that many don’t consider. We assume that all commanders will be able to grasp and successfully implement a complex, full-spectrum COIN campaign, but this isn’t true. Within the US Army, those who truly “get it” are few and far between – not everyone is a Petraeus or a McMaster. Based on my personal experiences, I agree with this wholeheartedly. In fact, I would argue that the surge in Iraq was often successful in spite of top commanders and leaders (thanks to junior officers and NCOs who grasped COIN and made it successful at the tactical level).