Why the Afghan Surge Will Fail
Foreign Policy in Focus
November 13, 2009
Before the Obama administration buys into General
Stanley McChrystal's escalation strategy, it might
spend some time examining the August 12 battle of
Dananeh, a scruffy little town of 2,000 perched at the
entrance to the
Dananeh is a textbook example of why counterinsurgency
won't work in that country, as well as a case study in
military thinking straight out of Lewis Carroll's
According to the
attack was to seize a "strategic" town, cut "Taliban
supply lines," and secure the area for the presidential
elections. Taking Dananeh would also "outflank the
insurgents," "isolating" them in the surrounding
mountains and forests.
What is wrong with this scenario?
One, the concept of a "strategic" town of 2,000 people
in a vast country filled with tens of thousands of
villages like Dananeh is bizarre.
Two, the Taliban don't have "flanks." They are a fluid,
irregular force, not an infantry company dug into a set
position. "Flanking" an enemy is what you did to the
Wehrmacht in World War II.
Three, "Taliban supply lines" are not highways and rail
intersections. They're goat trails.
Four, "isolate" the Taliban in the surrounding
mountains and forests? Obviously, no one in the
Pentagon has ever read the story of Brer Rabbit, who
taunted his adversary with the famous words, "Please
don't throw me in the briar patch, Brer Fox." Mountains
and forests are where the Taliban move freely.
The Taliban were also not the slightest bit surprised
helicoptered in at night, all was quiet. At dawn - the
Taliban have no night-fighting equipment - the
insurgents opened up with rockets, mortars, and machine
guns. "I am pretty sure they knew of it [the attack] in
advance," Golf Company commander Captain Zachary Martin
told the Associated Press.
Pinned down, the Marines brought in air power and
artillery and, after four days of fierce fighting, took
the town. But the Taliban had decamped on the third
night. The outcome? A chewed-up town and 12 dead
insurgents - that is, if you don't see a difference
between an "insurgent" and a villager who didn't get
out in time, so that all the dead are automatically
members of the Taliban.
"I'd say we've gained a foothold for now, and it's a
substantial one that we're not going to let go," says
Martin. "I think this has the potential to be a watershed."
Only if hallucinations become the order of the day.
The battle of Dananeh was a classic example of
irregular warfare. The locals tip off the guerrillas
that the army is coming. The Taliban set up an ambush,
fight until the heavy firepower comes in, then slip away.
"Taliban fighters and their commanders have escaped the
Marines' big offensive into
province and moved into areas to the west and north,
prompting fears that the
Taliban problem elsewhere," writes Nancy Youssef of the
When the Taliban went north they attacked German and Italian troops.
In short, the insurgency is adjusting. "To many of the
Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had
attended something akin to the
school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small
groups in austere environments," writes Karen DeYoung
Actually, the Afghans have been doing that for some
time, as Greeks, Mongols, British, and Russians discovered.
One Pentagon officer told the Post that the Taliban has
been using the
a training ground. It's "a perfect lab to vet fighters
gauge the response time for
strikes, and helicopter assaults. "They know exactly
how long it takes before...they have to break contact
and pull back."
Just like they did at Dananeh.
General McChrystal has asked for 40,000 new troops in
order to hold the "major" cities and secure the
population from the Taliban. But even by its own
standards, the plan is deeply flawed. The military's
Counterinsurgency Field Manual recommends a ratio of 20
soldiers for every 1,000 residents. Since
has a population of slightly over 32 million, that
would require a force of 660,000 soldiers.
troops. If the Pentagon sends 40,000 additional troops,
35,000 NATO troops, though most alliance members are
under increasing domestic pressure to withdraw their
soldiers. McChrystal wants to expand the Afghan army to
240,000, and there is talk of trying to reach 340,000.
Even with the larger Afghan army, the counterinsurgency
plan is 150,000 soldiers short.
An Afghan Army?
And can you really count on the Afghan army? It doesn't
have the officers and sergeants to command 340,000
troops. And the counterinsurgency formula calls for
"trained" troops, not just armed boots on the ground.
According to a recent review, up to 25% of recruits
quit each year, and the number of trained units has
actually declined over the past six months.
On top of this,
national army. If Pashtun soldiers are deployed in the
Tajik-speaking north, they will be seen as occupiers,
and vice-versa for Tajiks in Pashtun areas. If both
groups are deployed in their home territories, the
pressures of kinship will almost certainly overwhelm
any allegiance to a national government, particularly
one as corrupt and unpopular as the current Karzai regime.
And by defending the cities, exactly whom will
troops be protecting? When it comes to
"major" population centers are almost a contradiction
in terms. There are essentially five cities in the
Jalalabad (20,000). Those five cities make up a little
more than 10% of the population, over half of which is
living in towns of 1,500 or fewer, smaller even than Dananeh.
But spreading the troops into small firebases makes
them extremely vulnerable, as the
out in early September, when eight soldiers were killed
in an attack on a small unit in the Kamdesh district of
and, according to the
While McChrystal says he wants to get the troops out of
"armored vehicles" and into the streets with the
maintain a presence outside of the cities. On occasion,
that can get almost comedic. Take the convoy of Stryker
light tanks that set out on October 12 from "Forward
Operating Base Spin Boldak" in Khandar province for
what was described as a "high-risk mission into
The convoy was led by the new Mine Resistant Ambush
Protected (MRAP) vehicles designed to resist the
insurgent's weapon-of-choice in
bombs. But the MRAP was designed for
lots of good roads. Since
roads, the MRAPs broke down. Without the MRAPs the
Strykers could not move. The "high-risk" mission ended
up hunkering down in the desert for the night and
slogging home in the morning. They never saw an insurgent.
Afterwards, Sergeant John Belajac remarked, "I can't
imagine what it is going to be like when it starts raining."
If you are looking for an
Spin Boldak convoy may be it.
McChrystal argues that the current situation is
"critical," and that an escalation "will be decisive."
But as former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst A.J.
Rossmiller says, the war is a stalemate. "The
insurgency does not have the capability to defeat
forces or depose
insurgency." While the purported goal of the war is
denying al-Qaeda a sanctuary, according to
intelligence the organization has fewer than 100
fighters in the country. And further, the Taliban's
leader, Mullah Omar, pledges that his organization will
not interfere with
which suggests that the insurgents have been learning
about diplomacy as well.
the parties down and working out a political
settlement. Since the Taliban have already made a
seven-point peace proposal, that hardly seems an
Anything else is a dangerous illusion.
© 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus