Notes on the War in Afghanistan: The Generals believe we can win

Coalition forces work on gaining the trust of the local population in a small village in the mountains outside Combat Outpost Sabari, Khowst province, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2009. The soldiers are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 501st Regiment, 4th Brigade. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Nicholas

Coalition forces work on gaining the trust of the local population in a small village in the mountains outside Combat Outpost Sabari, Khowst province, Afghanistan, Nov. 10, 2009. The soldiers are assigned to the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Battalion, 501st Regiment, 4th Brigade. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Christopher Nicholas

Back in September Michael Gerson, former advisor to President George W. Bush wrote a column titled “A Loss of Will in Afghanistan.” In it, he addresses the claim by critics that the war in Afghanistan isn’t winnable.

Gerson writes that General David Petraeus “dismisses the idea that a strategy of drones, missiles and U.S. Special Forces would be sufficient in Afghanistan.” According to Petraeus:

We tried counterterrorist approaches in Afghanistan, launching cruise missiles. Some say we are doing OK with that approach in the FATA (Pakistan’s tribal regions). But only because we know where to look.

Gerson continues, with quotes from Petraeus:

Targeting terrorists is done with on-the-ground intelligence, which ‘takes enormous infrastructure.’ In addition, ‘the Taliban have sanctuaries in Afghanistan. You can’t take out sanctuaries with Predator strikes. We are not going to carpet bomb. Distance puts limits on what you can do.’

Gerson explains that Petraeus is “strongly behind the approach recently advocated by America’s lead general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal,” a plan that Petraeus calls “a fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign.”

Here are Michael Gerson’s own comments on the McChrystal plan:

This involves expanding the Afghan army, partnering American troops with Afghan forces, better protecting population centers, coordinating military advances with civilian development efforts, strengthening local governance and mastering the endless intricacies of a tribal culture.

The effort will require more troops, more resources and more patience from a tired nation — and perhaps, to get serious results in 2010, an emergency war supplemental appropriation from Congress.

Iraq, the recent model for counterinsurgency success, is different from Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s population is more dispersed; its insurgency more rural. Small contingents of troops are needed in more locations to secure population centers. The Afghan insurgency is also mainly indigenous — in contrast to Iraq, where foreign leadership was eventually resented and resisted.

But America is not without advantages in this fight. The people of Afghanistan know what it is like to live under the Taliban, and there is no evidence they want to go back. Afghan consent for the American presence in their country, according to polls, is resilient and sustained.

It is not a serious strategy to exaggerate American obstacles in Afghanistan, to discount hopeful alternatives, and to speak with airy vagueness about how it will all work out if we retreat. It is a fantasy world of our own unmaking.

Three foreign policy experts who have studied Afghanistan extensively in the past several years are Max Boot, Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan. Back in March they wrote an interesting article for the Weekly Standard titled –

Yes, We Can
In the ‘graveyard of empires,’ we are fighting a war we can win.

Here is a very important excerpt (with two points of emphasis added):

Evidence to support the pessimists isn’t hard to find.

The drug business, centered in the southern provinces (Helmand is the biggest producer, but Farah is catching up), produces 90 percent of the world’s opium, worth an estimated $4 billion a year. Of that total, the United Nations estimates $500 million goes into the hands of the insurgents, who provide protection for the narco-traffickers and collect taxes from poppy farmers. That makes the drug trade a major concern for the coalition. Yet NATO’s mandate does not allow coalition troops to target the drug lords directly. That is a job reserved for Afghanistan’s counternarcotics forces, which are advised by DynCorp contractors paid by the U.S. State Department, and which work with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other law-enforcement agencies. But ISAF forces are starting to get into the anti-drug fight because the poppy-eradication forces are protected by Afghan Army troops who have with them embedded American advisers. When these forces are attacked on anti-drug missions, they can call in coalition support including quick-reaction forces, medevac, and airstrikes.

Those who claim that this is a fool’s errand because Afghanistan has never had any effective governance only reveal their own ignorance of that country’s long and proud history. For all its tribalism and internecine warfare, Afghanistan has been an independent country since the 18th century, with such strong monarchs as Dost Mohammad, who drove out a British incursion in 1842 and ruled for 33 years. Under King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 to 1973, Afghanistan made considerable economic and political progress, including the adoption of a fairly democratic written constitution. It was relatively peaceful and stable before a Marxist coup in 1978 set off a long period of war and turmoil whose most consequential events were the Soviet invasion in 1979, the Soviets’ departure in 1989, and the rise of the Taliban starting in 1994.

In seeking to repair Afghanistan’s tattered social fabric, the coalition will have to foster the growth of representative government, which is hardly an alien import but rather comports neatly with Afghanistan’s long tradition of tribal councils that rely on the consent of the community. That doesn’t mean that the coalition should foster a rigidly centralized regime. In fact, a bit more decentralization could be a spur to progress. In particular, it is important to change the constitution to allow governors to be elected rather than appointed by the president in order to make them more accountable to those they are supposed to serve…

The greatest asset that the United States and its allies have in the battle for Afghanistan’s future is the people of Afghanistan. In a recent poll conducted by ABC, the BBC, and ARD, only 4 percent of Afghans expressed a desire to be ruled by the Taliban. Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq enjoyed far higher levels of popular support in their respective communities at the height of the violence. For all their ferocity and cunning, the insurgents in Afghanistan do not offer a viable alternative that can win widespread acceptance. They can only take power if coalition forces give up the fight. To do so would hand Islamist terrorists their most significant-indeed, almost their only-victory since 9/11. It is fully in the power of coalition forces to prevent that dire outcome, but only if they have the popular support back home to finish what we started in 2001.