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Why a real counter-insurgency strategy is not possible in Afghanistan--and why politics may be the answer.

The situation in Afghanistan increasingly looks like Iraq did not too long ago. Not the actual political or military circumstances, of course, but the analysis and commentary. Phrases like "We’re entering a decisive period" and "It’s now or never" are being tossed around ominously as the debate over troop increases rages. One can hardly read an op-ed without being told that the situation is dire and that this is a critical time, perhaps even our Last Chance to Get It Right. Most notably, the report produced by General Stanley McChrystal announced that "the short-term fight will be decisive."

There is not a single Afghanistan myth more prevalent or more specious than this one. To be at a "critical juncture" implies that one side or the other is poised to decisively gain the upper hand and therefore to win. But the situation in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of that. I will likely have my pundit card revoked for saying so--nothing diverts attention like saying that a situation isn’t at a critical turning point--but it’s true. After eight years of fighting, two things seem clear: First, the insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S. forces or depose Afghanistan’s central government; and, second, U.S. forces do not have the ability to vanquish the insurgency. It’s true that the Taliban has gained ground in recent months, but, absent a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, it cannot retake sovereign control. This is not to say that Afghanistan isn’t unstable; it clearly is. That has been the case for eight years, however, and, in the absence of some shocking, unforeseen development, it could be true for another eight or 18 or 80 years. An increase of tens of thousands of troops will not change that fact, nor will subtle tactical changes. Rather than teetering on the edge of some imagined precipice, the situation in Afghanistan is at a virtual stalemate. Only by appropriately characterizing the current situation in Afghanistan can we begin to determine the best way to achieve our stated goals there.

Often when a crisis is invoked, it is to push a particular course of action, to make people believe that a recommended remedy must be undertaken immediately. In other words, warning of an impending crossroads can be a useful bullying mechanism, and that is what is happening now, as proponents of a broad-based counter-insurgency strategy confront those who favor a more focused counter-terrorism mission. Initially, the mission in Afghanistan was to depose a government that aided and abetted violent extremism, to destroy Al Qaeda to whatever extent possible, and to help establish a central government that would prevent the country from serving as a base and training ground for international terrorists. The first two aims have been largely accomplished: The Taliban is deposed, and Al Qaeda is in retreat, with many killed, others fleeing to Pakistan or beyond, and fewer than 100 fighters remaining in Afghanistan (according to recent government estimates). At some point in the public debate over Afghanistan, however, the idea of counter-terrorism became conflated with counter-insurgency, and the third goal took center stage.

It is true that maintaining a central government that will not aid and abet international terrorists is a critical strategic goal, but even a fairly limited troop deployment could prevent Kabul from falling to the Taliban. Retaking sovereign control would require the Taliban to engage inthe kind of set piece battles that insurgent forces consistently lose, and, as National Security Advisor Jim Jones recently told CNN, "I don't foresee the return of the Taliban, and I want to be very clear that Afghanistan is not in imminent danger of falling." Furthermore, it is by no means clear that even a Taliban return to power would create a safe haven for international terrorists; it is hard to imagine the Taliban happily inviting back the people who got many of them killed and the rest ousted from power, or for the United States to sit idly by even if the Taliban did pursue such a suicidal course of action. The question should be, then, how (or if) a troop increase would enhance our counter-terror operations.

Unfortunately, the McChrystal report is disappointingly oblique about this, instead declaring a need for "classic counterinsurgency operations" without precisely defining them. In fact, whereas counterinsurgency is often defined through a "clear, hold, and build" model of territorial control, followed by provision of legal order and goods and services, the report says the proposed strategy should instead focus on "the population." (The old hearts and minds objective!) The report proposes that allied troops shield the population from insurgent violence, corruption, and coercion. But, aside from the fact that allied troops cannot possibly protect the population from corruption, protecting the population from insurgent violence and coercion (whatever that means) would require hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops. General Petraeus’s own "Counterinsurgency Field Manual," while noting that force size calculations depend on the situation, acknowledges that "[t]wenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective [counterinsurgency] operations." Afghanistan, with a population estimated at 28.4 million, would require 568,000 troops under that model. Even more modest estimates suggest that a force sufficient to defeat the insurgency would require hundreds of thousands of troops. Retired General Dan McNeill, former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, recently suggested that Afghanistan would need a force of at least 400,000 to win. The idea that adding 40,000 troops to the roughly 100,000 American and NATO troops there now will produce a military victory over the insurgency is simply delusional, and does not reflect classic counterinsurgency doctrine.

If the situation is a virtual stalemate--that is, if it is not possible or realistic to send enough troops to ensure military victory, and similarly unlikely that the anti-government forces are capable of taking sovereign control--then two potential courses of action emerge. First, the status quo could be maintained. The United States could sustain its force levels, keeping enough troops to preserve the Karzai government and prevent terrorist havens but not enough to eliminate the insurgency; and the insurgency could keep fighting, never taking over the country but maintaining control of some localities. This is not necessarily a terrible option, but it would eventually become politically untenable for the United States, aside from the legitimate question of whether such a sustained effort would be the most effective use of resources for counterterrorism. The second possible outcome is political compromise.

Power sharing is the natural outgrowth of a political/military impasse. It is essentially already occurring at the local level, with the Taliban wielding substantial governing authority in at least a third of Afghanistan’s districts. Rather than trying to evict the Taliban from the territory of the largely supportive Pashtun population, the United States and the Afghanistan central government should acknowledge that renegade Pashtuns--not groups of international terrorists, but nationalist insurgents--have earned the right to participate in government in some capacity. (Karzai, notably, is himself an ethnic Pashtun, but has long feuded with the Taliban, and the post-2001 governmental structure has strongly favored former warlords and his close allies.) In some areas, the Taliban has acted as a local government--keeping order, providing services, mediating disputes, etc.--and, in others, it is confined to anti-government propaganda and violence. But, through participation in government, its actions can be evaluated by the people and observed by the global community. The Taliban should not, of course, be allowed to take over--but a group with a constituency should be allowed to at least try, under a representative system, to participate in governance subject to the expressed will of the people. Whether that simply means greater opportunities for engagement or formalization of political powers for certain demographics--as there is in Iraq, for example--should be up for debate and negotiation, but political process must be the focus, rather than pure military goals. Like most Americans, I have nothing but enmity for anyone even tangentially involved in the terrorist attacks against the United States, but achieving our strategic goals often requires dealing with people we find repellent.

Some kind of political compromise is unavoidable no matter what the United States does, but, if we acknowledge that, we can influence how it is forged. This is the very lesson of Iraq--not, as many claim, that a troop increase will turn the tides. Rather than destroying the Iraqi insurgency, we split the nationalists from the (very small number of) international terrorists by engaging the former group politically and focusing military efforts against the latter. We offered disaffected Sunnis a voice in government, encouraged them to take part in the political process, and insisted upon enforcement of an Iraqi constitution that protects their rights--all despite Saddam's Sunni-dominated murderous reign. We also gave money and arms to Sunnis in exchange for their efforts against foreign fighters, and we ultimately established a withdrawal timetable that demonstrated to each side that political compromise was necessary immediately. Whether these approaches will be vindicated in the coming years is an open question, but it helped begin to shift the method of conflict from violence to politics.

Of course, for insurgents to come to the bargaining table, they must believe they cannot win. Whether they are at that point now is an open question, and, if they are not, then increasing American troop levels could both demonstrate U.S. resolve and set back the insurgents enough to convince them that they can either negotiate and participate in governance or face an indefinite U.S. troop presence. It must also be clear that any support of international terrorism will engender immediate and severe consequences. And a political solution would need support from international institutions, regional allies, and substantial economic and humanitarian aid. It is not an easy goal, nor one that will happen productively by itself, but it is worth doing, and worth doing right.

If I were to blindly go along with the current discourse on Afghanistan, I would also say that this moment represents our Last Chance to Get It Right. But the reality is that political compromise will happen at some point, and, even if it doesn’t happen now, little will change in the near-term. The question then becomes, how many lives, how much money, and how much strategic energy will we expend in the meantime?

A.J. Rossmiller is a fellow at the National Security Network, a former intelligence officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the author of Still Broken: A Recruit’s Inside Account of Intelligence Failures, from Baghdad to the Pentagon.