The South Asia Channel

Why John Nagl isn’t being realistic about Afghanistan

By Michael A. Cohen John Nagl made the wise point earlier this week here on the AfPak blog that Afghanistan needs more Afghan troops — it is point of agreement shared across the political and policy spectrum all the way from the Stay the Course crowd to the Get Out Now crowd. The problem, however, ...

ST LOUIS, MO - AUGUST 10: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has been a major issue for American soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

By Michael A. Cohen

John Nagl made the wise point earlier this week here on the AfPak blog that Afghanistan needs more Afghan troops — it is point of agreement shared across the political and policy spectrum all the way from the Stay the Course crowd to the Get Out Now crowd. The problem, however, in Nagl’s argument is that he fails to connect the dots between the lack of current Afghan government support for U.S. and ISAF military operations and the continued prosecution of a U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort. If the United States does not have host country support to conduct counterinsurgency operations then why does Nagl believe we should continue engaging in an operational approach that is missing this vital ingredient?

John Nagl of course has written the book on counterinsurgency — and I mean that literally. His argument for a larger Afghan army of 250,000 soldiers is at pace with the arguments made in his own book and in FM 3-24, the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. But what is less clear in Nagl’s argument is how long it will take to get from where we are today to a fully trained and capable force of a quarter million soldiers and 150,000 police. As Nagl knows, this is not simply a question of slapping a uniform on a soldier and police officer and saying “do your job.” It takes time to develop such a force.

In Iraq, it took roughly five years to create a somewhat functional security apparatus and that was in a country with a tradition of a professional army and a reasonably well-educated population — Afghanistan has neither. How long will it take to train 400,000 police and military in Afghanistan? One can imagine years or even decades. And how exactly will this be paid for and sustained? Today, the current budgets of both the police and military exceed the Afghan government’s revenues. Increasing the force at the levels Nagl is recommending could actually exceed the country’s GDP. This hardly seems sustainable or even desirable, not only from a fiscal standpoint, but also from a geo-political standpoint. One can only imagine the trepidation of neighboring countries at the prospects of an Afghan army — trained by American advisors — of 250,000 troops. Training a viable Afghan army is important, but at the levels Nagl is recommending it may not be realistic or wise.

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But these long-term concerns, notwithstanding, what happens in Afghanistan while this force is being trained? Who provides the “clear” and “hold” functions of counter-insurgency? The obvious and unmistakable answer is the U.S. military and NATO. But this is hardly a realistic scenario; not only from a domestic political standpoint (support for the war in Afghanistan is falling both in the U.S. and NATO countries) but also from a counterinsurgency standpoint. If the face of the counterinsurgency fight in Afghanistan remains that of a U.S. soldier for the next several years then this military effort will be fatally undermined. As FM 3-24 makes clear, “eventually all foreign armies are seen as interlopers or occupiers.”

Nagl argues that the United States “knows how to conduct counterinsurgency successfully.” It’s a debatable point, but even if one accepts this view by the precepts of counterinsurgency laid out FM 3-24 the U.S. simply lacks the resources to be successful in this endeavor. Without host country support an effort to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan government will simply not succeed — which makes the current focus on COIN tactics that much more bewildering.

In a sense Nagl’s argument is consistent with the growing and disturbing gap between our intentions in Afghanistan and our capabilities. General McChrystal has spoken eloquently of the need to protect Afghan civilians, strengthen the legitimacy of the government in Kabul, provide the Afghan people “with an opportunity to shape their future” and wage a “holistic counterinsurgency campaign.”

But the simple truth is that McChrystal doesn’t have the resources to do this. Even if the president acquiesces to inevitable demands for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan, McChrystal will still not have the host country military support or U.S. civilian support or Afghan government support for the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort. This is in addition to the aforementioned lack of political support in the United States or even the support of the Pakistani government in cracking down on Afghan Taliban across the Durand Line.

The sooner policymakers wake up to this sobering reality and stop trying to fit the square peg of counterinsurgency into the round hole of Afghanistan, the sooner U.S. military leaders can come up with an operational approach that is grounded in political and military reality. The key here is to move away from a population centric counter-insurgency fight, particularly in southern Afghanistan, to a more focused and politically realistic operation oriented around counter terrorism. Sean Kay’s argument on these pages about re-focusing the fight in Afghanistan from counterinsurgency to a policy of containment is a good place to start this discussion. But it necessitates the recognition by policymakers of what is actually achievable in Afghanistan. Trying to fight a robust counter-insurgency without the proper resources to actually succeed is to quote a phrase the surest way “to lose in Afghanistan.”

Michael A. Cohen is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.