Whose Fault Is the AfPak Confusion?

by Michael Crowley | October 9, 2009

Kevin Drum thinks people, including myself, are being too hard on the Obama team when it comes to AfPak policymaking:

If [Rajiv] Chandrasekar's account is correct, the fault isn't really with the Obama administration at all.  It's with the military: McKiernan was on board with the counterinsurgency strategy but didn't indicate that he needed more troops to implement it....

Later, of course, McKiernan was pushed out and a new commander took a fresh look at what resources were needed.  But that hardly reflects badly on Obama, and it doesn't really sound like anyone screwed up back in March.  Long story short, the military changed its mind about troop levels between March and September, and now Obama has to decide how to respond to that.  I don't really see a case for ineptness here...

Here's the problem: There are, or should be, plenty of people in the Obama administration who understand how much manpower the counterinsurgency approach implied by their March policy review would require. Here's what COIN guru John Nagl was saying back in February, before the review was completed:

The first requirement for success in any counterinsurgency campaign is population security. This requires boots on the ground and plenty of them—20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 people is the historically derived approximate ratio required for success, according to the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. That force ratio prescribes some 600,000 counterinsurgents to protect Afghanistan, a country larger and more populous than Iraq—some three times as large as the current international and Afghan force. The planned surge of 30,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan over the next year is merely a down payment on the vastly expanded force needed to protect all 30 million Afghan people.

Even if you assume that only half the country needs COIN protection--the west and north are more stable then the south and east--you're still talking about a combined US and Afghan force of 300,000. McKiernan's requested force level, combined with the feeble Afghan National Army and police, wasn't even close to these levels. This would have been clear to someone like under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy, a COIN expert (and former Nagl colleague) who participated in the initial review. Though I don't believe he was part of the same review process, I have to think that David Petraeus, the ultimate Yoda of COIN,  chimed in as well.

Yes, McKiernan should have asked for what he really needed. Indeed, the fact that he didn't apparently hastened his demise, as Chandrasekar's same article shows:

At the same time that the counterinsurgency idea was taking hold among the review team's members, Mullen and Gates were starting to question whether McKiernan was the right general to lead the effort in Afghanistan. If he was serious about counterinsurgency, some in the Pentagon wondered, how could he not want more forces?

I doubt this view would have been kept secret from Obama, who had to approve the decision to sack McKiernan. It just seems a little too convenient, then, for administration officials to say they're surprised by McChrystal's call for many more troops.

Ultimately, I agree with Kevin that it's better to make the right decision than to make a fast decision. I'm just still a bit confounded at why it's required so much time.

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