President Obama finally paid the price for stalling on Afghanistan. Military officials reportedly told McClatchy last week that the Pentagon is growing frustrated with what they considered “dithering.” After President Obama went out and once again downplayed troop requests, someone, most likely from the Pentagon, handed General Stanley McChrystal’s review to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.
The leak of his review, which McChrystal submitted to President Obama in August, has the White House scrambling to quell the bubbling uproar. McChrystal warns in his strategic review that failure to deploy additional US forces will likely result in defeat, yet Obama and his officials insist on delaying a decision until the full 17,000 troops are deployed and the Afghan election settled. They still want to push not just a decision but a debate into 2010.
Thus we must take the situation into our own hands. Will a static troop level result in defeat and if so, how many troops does Obama need to deploy?
Straight to the point, there are no signs that the present troop level will hold against a gathering Taliban. Arguing to wait until the newest deployment arrives in full is flimsy since only 3,000-4,000 troops remain to be stationed, not enough to cover America’s needs. Stranger still, Obama’s deployment was supposed to prevent the insecure election now delaying his decision. With a corrupt election or explosive runoff as the only outcomes, it stands to reason that America needs more troops to support whatever shaky government emerges, if Obama wants to support it.
The White House’s newest argument to quell troop rumors centers around the mission objective. Going from the top down, a nation-building mission demands more US troops and so would a partial reconstruction effort. But even a strict military effort, contrary to counterinsurgency as it is, would need more troops. Though Obama seemed so sure that “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qaeda” is the mission, now he’s questioning himself. Apparently he isn’t stalling for time, but analyzing whether al-Qaeda can be defeated without another deployment by using special forces and drones - the “offshore method.”
The AP reports, “The review could lead to decisions to scale back broad efforts at political reform and economic development and to focus missions on hunting down Al Qaeda by using small special operations teams and armed Predator aircraft. A narrower American effort also could avert the need for additional troops, officials and experts said.”
There’s no excuse to succumb to political spin when the truth is plain. America has spent the bulk of the war fighting the Taliban, not al-Qaeda, and this configuration is unlikely to change.
The argument of who the enemy is - the Taliban or al-Qaeda - is moot because the answer is both. Defeating the Taliban is necessary to ensure al-Qaeda doesn’t return en masse, while defeating al-Qaeda will leave the Taliban relatively intact, lethal, and ready to host a reconstituted al-Qaeda. The Taliban will continue fighting coalition forces even if America shifts to eliminating al-Qaeda leadership. Finally, taking out al-Qaeda in Pakistan ignores the threat of the Pakistani Taliban itself, which America has no answer for beyond the Pakistan army.
If America withdrew completely and focused purely on al-Qaeda then this arrangement could change, but the Taliban is America’s primary enemy as long as it occupies Afghanistan, light or heavy presence. And America will need many more troops to fight the Taliban. Not only is the Taliban growing more cohesive as a unit while maintaining its decentralized nature, Taliban tactics and weapons have evolved into the higher stages of insurgency. IEDs have dramatically risen, but so have complex ambushes. Its information network is also superior to America's.
But no sign is so empirical as the Taliban’s swelling ranks. While the Taliban has often been estimated at under 10,000 hardcore fighters, a recent Pentagon report claims the Taliban ranks now number between 15,000 and 20,000. An official involved in the report complained, “They seem never to have a shortage of manpower. And there doesn't appear to be any shortage of funding.” Furthermore, “The Taliban have already gained a foothold in almost every region home to a significant population of Pashtun tribes,” and are increasing operations in the north and west.
America can’t freeze its troop levels and expect to keep up with the Taliban’s recruiting, and the more momentum it gains the more soldiers it will field.
The question then becomes how many more troops does Obama need? Octopus Mountain has calculated a vacuum of 50,000-60,000 based on a soldier-to-civilian ratio of 20 per 1,000. Speculation of General McChrystal’s review has pushed the number as high as 45,000, meaning our calculations are similar after factoring in the political pressure to reduce McChrystal's estimate. The latest rumor from Washington, credible now that the Pentagon has decided to leak information, pegs McChrystal’s request at 30,000 new troops. Will this be enough?
At face value the answer is no since America would still be below the minimum 20/1,000 ratio. If America can train enough Afghans then they should be able to counteract the Taliban and reduce the number of American troops, but this process contains two critical flaws. First, training the Afghan army will take longer than the 12-18 month window so frequently tossed around. Judging by Iraqi security forces, the Afghan army needs at least five years to become field ready. As the army now stands, General McChrystal admitted that possibly half the force is poorly equipped and under-trained. Any argument that claims Afghan forces can fill the security vacuum is erroneous.
The White House and Congress’ plan to rapidly increase their training could end up compounding the insurgency instead. Octopus Mountain is very concerned with speeding up training of Afghan security forces since America has already been hurrying its task with lackluster results. Speeding up the training program even more opens the door for Taliban infiltration. The Taliban is a secret victor in America’s haste to expand the Afghan army and will make a vigorous attempt to penetrate its ranks.
Since Afghan forces aren’t the short-term solution, the only remaining alternative to increase overall troop levels is outreach to local warlords and tribal leaders, like Iraq. This strategy is growing in popularity as Western analysts swoon over its untapped potential. Octopus Mountain opposes such a strategy. Resourcing tribes to fight America’s battles may work in isolated pockets where the tribes are truly American, but simply buying off tribes is short-sighted and reeks of desperation. These same people highlight how fickle the Taliban’s support can be, then advocate that America use this fickle support! America doesn’t know enough to navigate Afghanistan’s tribal system.
Barring a withdrawal, America needs more troops to halt the Taliban’s momentum, beat back its advances, hold its territory, and eventually clear its fighters from society. 30,000 troops, with possibly 10,000 trainers, may be enough to stop the Taliban’s progress, but a stalemate is as good as defeat in counterinsurgency. President Obama will likely need more to tip the balance, after which he may be able to withdraw some troops as Afghan forces allow. Of course every other part of his strategy must succeed to make this possible.
Octopus Mountain doesn’t necessarily advocate escalation, but this is the reality facing President Obama and he will likely choose to surge. Next time we will theorize a successful withdrawal.