John A. Nagl is president of the Center for a New American Security and author of Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam.
There is an increasingly intense desire to transfer lessons learned from what appears to be a successful counterinsurgency effort in Iraq to America's long-neglected war in Afghanistan. The shift in attention is both laudable and overdue. While Iraq is increasingly secure and stable, Afghanistan is more dangerous than ever. We can certainly do better in Afghanistan than we have over the past seven years of war—but it will require a careful appraisal of what we're trying to accomplish and an appreciation for the resources required to get there. A strategic review must reflect an understanding of how to apply all the components of American power—not just the military—to achieve our ends. We need an Afghan surge—an increase of troops (including Afghan forces) to enable the application of a population- and oil-spot-security strategy. While additional U.S. troops are necessary, they are not sufficient to achieve success in Afghanistan.
The ends we seek are no sanctuary for terrorists and no regional meltdown.
American goals in Afghanistan have suffered from the most fundamental of all strategic errors: insufficient resources to accomplish maximalist goals. Building a liberal democracy in Afghanistan may be possible, but after 30 years of war, the country simply does not have the human capital and institutions that democracy requires. Creating that human infrastructure is a noble long-term enterprise for the international community, but in the meantime, the United States should focus on more achievable goals: ensuring that terrorists never again have a sanctuary on Afghan territory from which to launch attacks on the United States and our allies, and preventing Afghanistan from further destabilizing its neighbors, especially the fragile, nuclear-armed state of Pakistan.
While an expanded international commitment of security and development forces can assist in the achievement of these goals in the short term, ultimately Afghans must ensure stability and security in their own country. Building a state, even if it is a flawed one, that is able to provide a modicum of security and governance to its people is the American exit strategy from Afghanistan. Achieving these minimal goals will be hard enough.
In terms of means, we can use U.S. soldiers now, but we must transition to advisers for the long haul. More troops are desperately needed in Afghanistan, but troops alone are insufficient to achieve even limited goals for American policy in Afghanistan over the next five years. Success in counterinsurgency requires the integration of military, diplomatic, and economic assistance to a country afflicted by insurgents; Gen. David McKiernan, the American commander responsible for the International Security Assistance Forces, briefed just such a strategy to a group of scholars visiting Afghanistan in November. Unfortunately, he has not been given the resources required to accomplish his mission.
The first requirement for success in any counterinsurgency campaign is population security. This requires boots on the ground and plenty of them—20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 people is the historically derived approximate ratio required for success, according to the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. That force ratio prescribes some 600,000 counterinsurgents to protect Afghanistan, a country larger and more populous than Iraq—some three times as large as the current international and Afghan force. The planned surge of 30,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan over the next year is merely a down payment on the vastly expanded force needed to protect all 30 million Afghan people.
The long-term answer is an expanded Afghan National Army. Currently at 70,000 and projected to grow to 135,000, the Afghan Army is the most respected institution in the country. It must be expanded to 250,000, and mirrored by sizable local police forces, to provide the security that will prevent Taliban insurgent infiltration of the population. Building Afghan security forces will be a long-term effort that will require American assistance and advisers for many years, but there is no viable alternative.
How to accomplish these goals? Clear, hold, and build.
Additional troops will be successful only if they are employed correctly. Relearning the classic "clear, hold, and build" counterinsurgency model took several years in Iraq, but to date there are insufficient international or Afghan forces to hold areas that American troops have cleared of insurgents. As a result, the troops have had to clear the same areas repeatedly—paying a price for each operation in both American lives and in Afghan public support, which suffers from Taliban reprisals whenever we "clear and leave."
The alternative requires not just more troops but a different strategy. After an area is cleared of insurgents, it must be held by Afghan troops supported by American advisers and combat multipliers, including artillery and air support. Inside this bubble of security, the Afghan government can re-establish control and build a better and more prosperous community with the help of a surge of American civilian advisers. Since 30,000 more troops won't be enough to secure the whole country, we'll have to select the most important population centers, such as Kabul and Kandahar, to secure first. These "oil spots" of security will then spread over time—a long time. The single most important reason not to think of the new strategy as a surge for Afghanistan is that the term surge is associated with the relatively short-term ramp-up of forces in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the additional forces will be required for the long haul.
Back in September, Adm. Mike Mullen stressed that the need for more security was urgent: "Frankly, we're running out of time," he said. The situation has worsened since then, and the clock is still ticking. While a surge of troops is urgently needed, they must be a component of a new strategy; this ends, ways, and means formulation is one way to think about where we want Afghanistan to go and what it will take to get there.