A sense of unreality overshadows our debate on Afghan war policy across
the spectrum of opinions. The unreality derives from the simple fact
that we do not have enough troops to rationally implement an adequate
defense of our national interests. So every argument for Afghanistan
policy tends to seem unserious, perhaps pointless.
For example, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's proposal calls for a
counterinsurgency, or COIN, war modeled on the U.S. Army/Marine Corps
Counterinsurgency Field Manual, developed by Gen. David Petraeus with
strong input from Gen. McChrystal. Pursuant to that standard, to fully
man a COIN strategy, we would need 20 to 25 troops per 1,000 residents
in Afghanistan. That would require 600,000 U.S., NATO and Afghan troops
According to CNN, at the height of the Iraq surge, there were 29 troops
for every 1,000 residents. Currently, there are about 260,000 U.S., NATO
and Afghan troops on the ground, about 11 troops per 1,000 residents.
With the additional 30,000 U.S. troops plus 5,000 more NATO troops, the
force density rate will go up to 12.5 troops for every 1,000 residents
barely half of what is needed to reasonably hope for success.
Moreover, the history of COINs from the Philippines to Algeria to
Malaya to Vietnam is that they will take many years to succeed, if
Notwithstanding that guidance, Gen. McChrystal asked for only 40,000
more troops because, obviously, we do not have another 340,000 troops
available. And given that the word from some of our troops in
Afghanistan is that the Afghan National Army more or less refuses to
fight, we are not going to find another 300,000 adequate fighting
soldiers from the locals in the next year or two.
Notwithstanding the insufficient number of troops requested by the
general, President Barack Obama basically has endorsed the McChrystal
recommendations with a time-sensitive exit strategy added on. In the
president's words: "I do not make this decision lightly. I make this
decision because I am convinced that our security is at stake in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is the epicenter of violent extremism
practiced by al-Qaida. ... This is no idle danger, no hypothetical
threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists
within our borders who were sent here from the border region of
Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger
will only grow if the region slides backwards and al-Qaida can operate
The president went on in his West Point speech to explain why he was not
endorsing the calls of others for "a more dramatic and open-ended
escalation of our war effort": "I reject this course because it sets
goals that are beyond what can be achieved at a reasonable cost and what
we need to achieve to secure our interests."
So even though "our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan,"
we must make do without goals that are "beyond what can be achieved at a
Note that the reason the president said he is increasing our troop
strength is to "deny al-Qaida a safe haven. We must reverse the
Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government."
Yet because we don't have sufficient troops, our strategy is merely to
hold larger cities and towns, do what we can to build up the Afghan army
and government, and start leaving in 18 months inevitably al-Qaida
will continue to have "safe haven" in much of the countryside bordering
Pakistan even if we succeed wherever we try to regain control.
Along with that critical strategic shortcoming of our new
Afghanistan/Pakistan policy, critics of the president's escalation point
out that al-Qaida easily can find safe haven in Yemen, as well as
Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa. (The jungles of South
America and Central America could be added to that list, as could parts
of the dense cities of Hamburg, London, Paris, Rotterdam and Falls
Church, Va.) But because we clearly don't have enough troops to gain
control of those other areas, the administration and its Republican
defenders largely ignore that gibe.
The failure of the war advocates to match up their correct description
of the danger from radical Islamic terror violence with the U.S. troop
strength needed to hold it back is what gives an unrealistic, almost
insincere, air to the entire debate.
On Dec. 8, 1941, when the United States declared war on Japan, the U.S.
Army's strength was about 1.6 million. The Navy level was about 330,000.
But President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not limit his strategy to what
his generals could do with those soldier and sailor levels. FDR designed
a strategy for victory and back-engineered the necessary troop
levels. By December 1942, the Army was up to about 5.4 million. By the
spring of 1945, it was more than 8 million, and the Navy had more than 4
million men (out of a total U.S. population of 139 million). Victory can
come at that high a price.
But neither former President George W. Bush nor President Obama (nor,
I'm sure, the American public) would consider, for example, a draft (as
I advocated in my most recent book, "American Grit") to increase our
fighting capacity. That level of sacrifice, necessary to gain safety
from the still-gathering threat of radical Islam, is beyond current
So United States governments (both Republican and Democratic) propose
half-measures and receive only half-support. People reasonably ask
themselves why we should sacrifice life and treasure for a plan that
won't even work.