Should We Go Small in Afghanistan?

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President Obama's advisers have set out a handful of options for troop levels in Afghanistan, all calling for increases. The number that's gotten the most attention is 40,000--the amount requested by top Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal. But a few experts are focusing on whether a much smaller increase of 10,000 or 15,000 troops would work. This small surge would emphasize the training the Afghan military and reinforcing Afghan cities rather than aiming to control the sprawling countryside. The case for a small surge plays on a variation of the  "Goldilocks Problem"--what's the "just right" number to send? Too many troops could cause more harm than good, some warn. Too few troops could cause the situation to spiral out of control.

  • Why Going Big Won't Work  Fred Kaplan suggests a big push wouldn't work without a strong centralized government in Afghanistan. With President Hamid Karzai unlikely to deliver, maybe we should just reinforce provincial leaders. "Counterinsurgency involves protecting the local population from insurgency groups, so that the national government is better able to provide basic services, thus winning popular support and undermining the insurgents' appeal. If the government is particularly corrupt or incompetent, it won't be able to build on the security wrought by a good counterinsurgency campaign, thus nullifying our success and sacrifice," he writes. "This suggests that Obama is seeking ways to go around the central government — striking separate deals with provincial leaders or providing more or less intensive levels of support — if Karzai proves to be a feeble partner in our counterinsurgency campaign. Or it might suggest one way to exert leverage over Karzai — to make clear that we will empower regional players, and thus weaken his own standing, if he doesn't clean up his act, thus making his regime more legitimate in the eyes of his people and therefore better able to beat the Taliban in the competition for hearts and minds."
  • Don't Go Too Small  Foreign Policy's Thomas Hegghammer warns against reducing the number of troops. "For a start, a troop reduction would not take away the occupation, at least not in the eyes of non-Afghan Islamists. Al Qaeda has a very wide definition of occupation and would frame any U.S. military presence in the region as such. Moreover, the surgical strikes would not be that surgical. A significantly smaller U.S. ground presence is likely to produce less good human intelligence, because it will be harder to protect informants. This will increase the risk of hitting, for example, wedding parties." Perhaps most importantly, "Meanwhile, al Qaeda would hide among civilians. For the Taliban, plausible deniability would be easy to establish: after all, Kabul cannot prevent Arab tourists, charity workers and preachers from entering the country. With the small footprint approach, al Qaeda will have a safe haven in Afghanistan, albeit a somewhat less open one than in the late 1990s."
  • Could It Work Politically?  Spencer Ackerman evaluates. "But if President Obama is really telling all factions to get much more specific about how the war ends, then perhaps it really is on the table. If it is, the question becomes whether McChrystal stays in his command. While we may not actually know what McChrystal himself desires, his friends in the Joint Special Operations Command, I’ve been told, favor a troop increase far above 10,000. If he does, he’ll be blessing whatever Obama decides. But very, very few commanders ever actually resign. If McChrystal proves to be the exception, it will be a political debacle for the Obama administration, and so it’s a safe bet that the White House will do whatever it can not to force the general’s hand."
  • The Soviet Strategy  Matthew Yglesias compares a small surge to the strategy of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Looking at a map, he says the comparison "is very interesting in light of apparently ongoing disagreement in policy circles about how many population centers you really need to control to maintain a basic grip on Afghanistan." Yglesias writes, "The basic strategy reads pretty clearly off the map. It’s easier to hold cities than the countryside. So you try to put together a string of urbanized areas that leaves you in control of the main ring road through the country, plus via Jalalabad and Kunduz some key routes to the border. But the Soviets couldn’t quite make this work, and some serious portions of the road network remained out of their grasp."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.