President Obama's decision to dispatch more than 30,000 reinforcements to salvage the war in Afghanistan may well prove to be the most consequential decision of his presidency. Critics on the left accuse him of sinking the nation deeper into aVietnam-like quagmire. Oppo- nents on the right oppose his 18-month timeline, or reject a nation-building campaign that risks breaking the U.S. military on a hardscrabble land where, it is said, empires go to die.
As an important marker in the "long war" against violent Islamic terrorism and extremism, the Obama administration's Afghan deliberations illuminated a number of important issues. First and foremost, the Obama "surge" reveals how the hard lessons of counterinsurgency warfare now dominate U.S. military thinking and are fundamentally reshaping the Army in particular.
Indeed, if Obama had decided not to send reinforcements, he would have ignored the U.S. military's prevailing narrative of the past eight years of war.
The prolonged debate on Afghanistan also highlighted worrisome stress fractures in the overburdened all-volunteer force, and raised questions about whether the military's war-fighting skills and instincts are atrophying in the "soft power" realm of armed nation building. Moreover, the deliberations pointed to a growing fissure between a war-weary American public and military leaders who anticipate a conflict with Islamic terrorism that is likely to stretch well into the future.
"I'm afraid the analogy of a horse that has been ridden hard and put up wet is coming true," Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, who recently commanded the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., told National Journal. He noted that 20 percent of the new class of midcareer Army majors at the Command and General Staff College were rated at "high risk" of physical problems because of such factors as hypertension and emotional distress. As a result, the school has begun teaching "resiliency" courses to help officers cope with the wear and tear of repeated combat deployments.
"In terms of the physical well-being of our majors, recent classes have been the worst we've ever seen in 15 years of testing," said Caldwell, who has recently deployed to Afghanistan himself. "That's why we are starting to put in place systems that allow us to sustain this operations tempo for the next 20 years, because I think anyone who believes we'll have all of our forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan in the next five years is sadly mistaken. Even if we leave, we'll likely be deployed somewhere else. This really is the 'long war.' "
To grasp the power of the counterinsurgency narrative in shaping contemporary military thinking, consider the options that were presented to Obama. One was a "hybrid" strategy that involved sending fewer additional troops. It would have targeted Qaeda and Taliban leaders while leaving a lighter footprint on the ground. That is exactly the strategy that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top Afghan commander, pursued in Iraq when he headed the Special Forces hunter-killer teams there. That campaign led to the death or capture of numerous high-value targets, including the most-wanted terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed in 2006. Yet that strategy did little to quell the insurgency that very nearly engulfed Iraq in an all-out civil war.
U.S. commanders also discussed the option of sending fewer additional troops and holding their current ground while accelerating the handoff of responsibilities to Afghan security forces. Army chief George Casey, the former Iraq commander, pursued such a strategy in Iraq between 2004 and 2007. It led to a persistent mismatch between an increasingly potent insurgency and an inexperienced and overwhelmed Iraqi security force that failed to halt the country's descent into chaos. In his West Point speech, Obama called this the "muddle through" option.
By contrast, Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command who literally wrote the Army's counterinsurgency manual, took charge in Iraq in 2007 and implemented a population-centric strategy of "clear, hold, and build" with the help of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. Only then did the deteriorating security situation begin to stabilize.
By this telling, Petraeus's strategy encouraged Iraqis, who were finally provided a modicum of security and protection from retribution, to begin to identify the insurgents who had operated invisibly in their midst. Convinced that U.S. forces were staying, tribal sheiks and the "Sons of Iraq" in the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar province sided with the United States against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The "virtuous cycle" of counterinsurgency operations then began, with Iraqi security forces steadily gaining confidence in operations against the diminished insurgency, to the point that U.S. commanders now plan to withdraw 70,000 forces from Iraq by September 2010, and all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
Petraeus, speaking at a Bloomberg-sponsored conference on November 12, said: "When I went to Afghanistan for the first time in September 2005 to do an assessment for [then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld], I came back and said that this is going to be the longest campaign of the long war -- and that did not get wild applause, necessarily, on the third floor of the Pentagon, but it was how I saw it. But can the counterinsurgency concepts [employed in Iraq] be applied to Afghanistan? The answer is yes, certainly. Concepts such as the importance of security, serving the population, helping Afghans develop a government that can be seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people and therefore worthy of support. Promoting what in Afghanistan is called 'reintegration of reconcilables,' so that individuals that currently are either on the fence or are intimidated by the Taliban can become part of the solution instead of continuing to be part of the problem. All of these concepts are very important, and they have to be implemented with a really nuanced understanding of Afghanistan."
After two decades of deeply unsatisfying experiences in irregular warfare in places such as Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, no one should underestimate the influence on current military thinking of the mythology surrounding Petraeus's counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. When President Obama identified Afghanistan as the "central battlefield" in the conflict against terrorism, it was no surprise that McChrystal and Petraeus used the "Iraq surge" as the template for their strategy to turn that war around. The surprise would have been if they hadn't.
"Looking back, I think General Petraeus will prove a pivotal figure of this period, and he deserves a lot of credit for what he accomplished in Iraq," said Andrew Krepinevich, a counterinsurgency expert and the president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. "At a time when the stakes were extremely high and conventional wisdom held that the Iraq war was lost, he adopted this methodical strategy rooted in counterinsurgency doctrine that achieved a remarkable turnaround. And now in Afghanistan, he and McChrystal are again coming late to an insurgency that has gained all the momentum. That requires a surge of U.S. forces to buy time to train indigenous forces to assume most of the burden. That is essentially our way out of Afghanistan."
Navy Adm. Michael Mullen is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the president's top uniformed adviser. During the extended debate on Afghan policy, he kept his advice to Obama private, but there was little doubt about his support for a troop surge to conduct a thorough counterinsurgency campaign.
"Insurgencies are not stagnant; they go one way or another, and right now the Afghan insurgency is going the wrong way as far as we're concerned. So my sense of urgency has been all along the need to make a decision to resource this in a way that we can reverse the momentum of the Taliban," Mullen told National Journal in a November 4 interview. The best strategy for accomplishing that was not to focus on narrower missions in hopes of getting by with less, Mullen said, but rather to adopt the kind of population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that Petraeus enshrined in the 2006 Army counterinsurgency field manual, FM 3-24.
"I believe this is a classic counterinsurgency campaign, and that the counter-terrorism piece to disrupt the enemy is an absolutely critical part," Mullen said. "But in the end, counterinsurgency is about the people. The people of Afghanistan are going to throw the bad guys out. It's not going to be [U.S. combat operations] that do it."
After dispatching marines to Helmand province in July as part of Obama's initial increase of 21,000 troops, McChrystal already reported positive effects. "We see these classic counterinsurgency responses where, once security exists, local leaders feel secure and empowered and the people start providing us intelligence about where the bad guys are," Mullen said. "It's a cycle you get into, and in many places in Afghanistan, the exact opposite has been occurring because we didn't have enough troops to be out among the people."
When Mullen was asked how long the United States and its NATO allies would have to pursue such a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he referred once again to the Iraq template. "We have to be careful about the direct comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan, because there are those [strategies] that work, and others that are different because [these] are two different countries. But I think [Afghanistan] does look a lot like Iraq in that regard. If I were to use the surge in Iraq in 2007, and look where we are right now [about three years later, with an exit date scheduled two years hence], I think we can apply the same kind of timelines to Afghanistan. We think that's reasonable in terms of having the desired impact, and then being able to start thinning our forces out and bringing them back home."
Inevitably, the debate over reinforcing a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan raised thorny near-term issues, beginning with the reliability of the Afghan government as a partner and options to pressure President Hamid Karzai to tackle the problem of endemic government corruption. The ability of the international aid community and civilian agencies such as the State Department and USAID to deliver economic help was another critical concern; establishing a blueprint for adequately training Afghan security forces in a realistic timeframe was another.
"Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," Obama said at West Point on December 1. "Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground."
Yet the long-term implications of committing tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan may eventually weigh even more heavily on the Obama administration. There is little doubt that sending the three or more additional brigade combat teams that McChrystal requested will exacerbate the already rising rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicide, binge drinking, and divorce among troops with histories of multiple combat deployments.
According to senior military leaders, most major units are in the midst of or finishing up their fourth combat tours since 2001. Brigade combat teams identified for possible deployment to Afghanistan next year, including two each from the 101st Airborne Division and 10th Mountain Division, will have only 12 to 18 months at home between returning from war and going back again. That period is well below the Army's standard target of 24 months "dwell time" between deployments.
The Obama administration plans to deploy all of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops by June, meaning that already busy U.S. ground forces are in for another period of frenetic activity.
"This decision to surge tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan is going to have an interesting psychological impact on the Army because, if you do the numbers, it clearly means we will not be able to get off this merry-go-round of 12-to-15-month combat deployments followed by roughly the same amount of time at home," said an active-duty general, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"No one can predict when, but at some point, we're going to reach the bottom of this well of commitment by soldiers and their families," the general said. "If you look at our suicide and divorce rates, it's hard to imagine that our career soldiers have too many more repetitive combat tours in them. I have captains telling me all the time they don't have time even to date, let alone begin a serious relationship, before they're off on another tour, and soldiers at every grade are having a harder time staying married these days. Our platoon sergeants and company-level [noncommissioned officers] are also deployed so often that they've lost the art of training soldiers. There are a lot of indicators that we no longer have the time to train to the high standards of the past."
Nearly a decade of war has produced the most combat-seasoned force in the history of the all-volunteer military. A growing number of experts, however, worry that its increasing skills in counterinsurgency tactics and small-unit operations have come at the expense of its ability to fight at the high-intensity end of the spectrum that defines warfare between national armies. A similar degradation was noted in the vaunted Israel Defense Forces that faltered badly in the 2006 war in Lebanon against the Hezbollah militia after years of stability operations and low-intensity counterinsurgency in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Exhibit A in this argument was the Taliban's October 3 assault on a remote U.S. outpost in Afghanistan's mountainous Kamdesh district near the eastern border with Pakistan. Eight American and three Afghan soldiers were killed by an estimated force of more than 200 Taliban insurgents who, in a coordinated assault, breached the U.S. perimeter and very nearly overran the base.
The deadliest conflict for U.S. troops in more than a year, Kamdesh closely resembled the July 13, 2008, battle of Wanat, when the Taliban assaulted another remote U.S. base along the border, killing nine American soldiers. In each case, critics charge that the bases were undermanned and isolated, vulnerable to surrounding high ground, and outside the protective range of U.S. artillery.
"The good news is that the U.S. Army is finally taking counterinsurgency operations seriously; but the bad news is, our conventional forces are losing their competency in a lot of basic military tasks, like the emplacement and use of artillery," said retired Army Col. Patrick Lang, a Special Forces officer in Vietnam and a former professor at West Point. "I have built a lot of defensive positions in my life, and I can tell you the planning and execution at the battalion and brigade level in establishing these Afghan outposts was so bad that commanders should have been relieved [of duty]. I'm hearing all the time from field-grade officers that the Army is deployed so much that it's lost basic competence in war-fighting skills from lack of practice and training."
Ghosts Of Vietnam
For old soldiers of a certain age, the deliberations over Afghanistan, with their divisive political undertone and polls showing a majority of Americans opposed to sending more troops, echo an earlier troubling national debate. These veterans recall that after the 1968 Tet offensive, as American public opinion turned decisively against the Vietnam War, the military adopted a more population-centric counterinsurgency approach that included an accelerated transfer of responsibilities to South Vietnamese forces, or "Vietnamization." That strategy arguably worked until 1975, when Congress, reflecting the will of the people, pulled the plug on U.S. support and South Vietnam collapsed.
"After redirecting our attention to Iraq, having barely kicked the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2002, we shouldn't be surprised that seven years later it's gone to hell; but I'm not sure [that] upping our investment now will recoup those lost years," said Richard Hart Sinnreich, a defense consultant who fought in Vietnam and taught at West Point and the Army's Command and General Staff College. "I certainly don't see us being successful in Afghanistan in less than five to 10 more years, and I don't think the American people are willing to support that kind of prolonged fight against a nationalist tribal movement in someone else's country. The public doesn't want to absorb the kind of U.S. casualties required to win in a gentle way, or inflict the kind of casualties required to win in a ruthless way. That raises the very good question of whether, strategically, we are designing a U.S. military force to fight wars which the American people will not support."
With the U.S. having already engaged in counterinsurgency operations for longer than it did in the Vietnam War, it's fair to ask whether the military and the American body politic have reached different conclusions based on the experience of the past eight years. The military has clearly concluded that it needs to develop the skills to improve its counterinsurgency operations, in hopes of buying public patience with some tactical successes in Afghanistan. But what if the American people have concluded that the nation had better end its involvement in such conflicts altogether?
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey is a former four-star head of the Southern Command and a highly decorated veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the Vietnam War. "Personally, I am 100 percent supportive of [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates's contention that we have to win the wars we're in right now, even if that means partially breaking our ground forces," he said in an interview. But eight years after 9/11, he said, the United States is recommitting ground forces to a counterinsurgency campaign in a giant, landlocked Muslim country seething with tribal, ethnic, and religious tensions, with a lot of nation-building tasks thrown in and not a lot of help from civilian agencies that lack the necessary capacity.
"And we're burning through upwards of $5 billion a month in Afghanistan during an unprecedented economic recession," McCaffrey said. "So my worry is that we are gradually creating a U.S. military focused on counterinsurgency operations but forgetful that its primary responsibility is to deter and, if necessary, prosecute high-intensity war against the armies of other nations, at a time when the American public has determined that it wants no more interventions in major Muslim countries. And I think the American people are right."
This article appears in the Dec. 5, 2009, edition of National Journal.