Posted by: Jeff | November 17, 2009

Is McChrystal Splitting the Difference?

One of the things Joe and I touched on in our podcast on Afghanistan was David Gergen’s warning against “splitting the difference.” Basically, Gergen’s point was that, when it comes to questions of military and foreign policy, you can’t half-ass it. You should either go in big and hard enough to get the job done, or not at all.

The problem for any politician, Obama included, is that going in big and hard can be politically unpopular. But so can pulling out entirely. It’s a bit of paradox, and politicians are tempted to resolve it by doing neither, and “going in middling” as Gergen puts it. But going in middling isn’t sufficient to win the conflict, so more treasure is expended and more lives are lost and there’s ultimately nothing to show for it. And that’s bad morally, practically and politically.

Of course, in this analogy, going in big and hard enough to win is defined by Gergen, and by the political discussion as a whole, as giving Gen. McChrystal the 40,000 extra troops he’s requested. Splitting the difference on Obama’s part would be something like giving McChrsytal only 20,000 or 10,000 troops, just so he can claim he isn’t tucking tail and running.

But here’s a creepy thought. What if McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops is already an example of splitting the difference? What if going into Afghanistan big enough to win would actually require something on the order of 200,000 or 300,000 more troops? We didn’t have the chance to get into this possibility in the podcast, but it was touched on by George Will in one of our audio clips. And it was delved into in some detail by A.J. Rossmiller in The New Republic article we linked to.

General Petraeus’s own “Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” while noting that force size calculations depend on the situation, acknowledges that “[t]wenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective [counterinsurgency] operations.” Afghanistan, with a population estimated at 28.4 million, would require 568,000 troops under that model. Even more modest estimates suggest that a force sufficient to defeat the insurgency would require hundreds of thousands of troops. Retired General Dan McNeill, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recently suggested that Afghanistan would need a force of at least 400,000 to win. The idea that adding 40,000 troops to the roughly 100,000 American and NATO troops there now will produce a military victory over the insurgency is simply delusional, and does not reflect classic counterinsurgency doctrine.

So McChrystal is requesting 40,000 more troops, but the strategy McChrystal intends to apply in Afghanistan would actually call for several times that many. (Specific number dependent on how many native Afghanistan troops we have on top of the NATO forces.) Something is amiss here.

Now, McChrystal is the military expert here, not me. I’ll be the first to admit the possibility that he knows something I don’t. And Petraeus himself has thrown his support behind McChrsytal’s request. But former Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, is also an experienced military man who has served in Afghanistan, and it appears his skepticism of McChrystal’s plan has had a pronounced effect on the Obama Administration’s thinking. Former Marine Commandant Gen. Chuck Krulak, quoted by George Will on This Week, is also an experienced military man, and repeats Rossmiller’s argument that a successful campaign in Afghanistan would require several hundred thousand additional troops, a commitment  the American people are neither willing nor able to sustain. And Rossmiller himself quotes Dan McNeill, another retired general and Afghanistan veteran.

Perhaps McChrsytal’s plan is to concentrate on a few key geographic areas or population centers, and thus for his purposes the extra 40,000 would meet the needs of counterinsurgency troop density. Or, as we mentioned in the podcast, maybe his intent is to use the added force strength to motivate the various groups which make up the Afghanistan insurgency to come to the bargaining table.

But I don’t know and as far as I’m aware McChrystal isn’t saying. No one seems to have a firm idea of exactly what these additional troops would be doing or what the ultimate end game is, beyond “a safe and stable Afghanistan.” It’s all incredibly vague. If I could ask McChrystal just one question, explaining all this would be it. In the meantime, I just don’t buy into the notion that, since McChrystal is “the general,” we as responsible citizens (or Obama as our president) should just shrug our shoulders and give McChrystal whatever he wants. Not when we’re staring down the barrel of yet another massive and prolonged occupation.

And since Obama has so far rejected not only McChrsytal’s request, but the other options for sending far fewer troops as well, he’s obviously no more impressed with the lack of clarity here than I am.

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