Thursday, October 22, 2009

Does Size Matter?

In the discussions about the possible enlargement of the US effort in Afghanistan, there has been much talk about whether the "xenophobic Afghans" will be upset by the increased American/foreign presence.

Kristof raises the issue of Pashtun nationalism:
When Pakistani troops enter Pashtun areas, the result has sometimes been a backlash that helps extremists. If Pashtuns react that way to Punjabis, why do we think they will react better to Texans?
Actually, it can go either way. Punjabis are part of a longer history of conflict with Pashtuns and are likely to stick around for the long term, so Pashtuns might mind them more than Texans, who are temporary and not carrying historical baggage. Nationalism does turn on us and them, but who is the most relevant and hated them is not always so obvious (see Kin and Country).

Moreover, it is not so much the size of the force, but how it is used. A larger force on the ground might actually mean less collateral damage as there would be more intel, more capability to target more precisely, less reliance on drones, etc. And Kristof is not really disagreeing with McChrystal by arguing for a greater focus on the cities. The problem is that securing the big cities (such as they are) might require more troops, rather than less. This is a typical confusion between numbers and strategy/tactics. You can change either or both. McChrystal proposes both, and that the greater numbers will facilitate the new strategy.

I am increasingly of the mind that the stakes are sufficiently high that we ought to give the new strategy a chance--failure is an option, just not a desirable one. In the grand scheme of things, the costs of additional troops is not huge (Kristof suggests what the money would buy in the US, but we can dream), compared to the on-going and past investments. This is, admittedly, approaching a sunk costs argument. But I think an increase here while downsizing in Iraq and seeing how things work is a pragmatic approach. Obama needs to make clear that McChystral cannot keep asking for more troops every six or twelve months.

For a pro-surge argument, see Boot in the same NYT:

The key to success in Nawa — and in other key districts from Garmsir in the south to Baraki Barak in the center — has been the infusion of additional United States troops. The overall American force in Afghanistan has grown to 68,000 from 32,000 in 2008. That has made it possible to garrison parts of the country where few if any soldiers had been stationed before. Before the Marines arrived in Nawa, for instance, there were just 40 embattled British soldiers there. The chronic troop shortfall made it impossible to carry out the kind of population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that has paid off in countries from Malaya to Iraq.

1 comment:

Bill Ayres said...

Following the logic in your second paragraph (way to get in a plug for the book!): the longer American forces stay around, the more they will develop a "history" with the locals, and get build into the local nationalistic narratives. This obviously interacts with strategy also: if a particular nationalist group sees you as advancing their cause, or at least not hindering it, you're unlikely to make the enemies list. But if you get seen as an obstacle to the national goals (whatever those are), you make the list - as US Marines in Lebanon found out in the 1980s. And the Lebanese case suggests that it doesn't necessarily take all that long - depends on the nature of your involvement.