The Kagan Plan for Afghanistan

On Monday, military analysts Frederick Kagan and Kimberley Kagan published a presentation on the force requirements necessary for the US to succeed in Afghanistan (http://www.understandingwar.org/files/Afghanistan_Force_Requirements.pdf).  Mr. Kagan was the brain behind the troop surge in Iraq, and he and Ms. Kagan propose a similar course of action in Afghanistan.  They recommend adding seven-and-a-half combat brigades (45,000 total troops) to the current force and rapidly accelerating the training of Afghan soldiers.

The Kagans’ make some strong points regarding the consequences of a major withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.  Their analysis of the problems inherent in relying solely on special operations forces (including drone aircraft) alone to combat Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in the border regions of Afghanistan-Pakistan is the most insightful part of the report.

However, there are several weaknesses in the Kagans’ proposal. One is that it minimizes the importance of the national police.  They write off the police as “ineffective and acclerants of the insurgency through corruption and penetration by militants,” and argue that the police should not be considered counterinsurgents.  They focus on building up the Afghan army, an important aspect of the US counterinsurgency strategy, but fail to recognize the importance of the police when it comes to gathering intelligence and establishing order.  The Afghan police force definitely has serious problems, but making it much larger and more effective should be a major priority of the coalition.

The Kagans’ also dismiss concerns shared by many senior American officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, that the US will be seen as an unwelcome occupier by the Afghan population if force levels increase significantly.

In the report, they say that “The issue of ‘foreign occupation’ is a propaganda theme, not a finely-calibrated reality.”

Perhaps the reason that the coalition is not currently perceived as an occupying force is that most Afghans have never seen a coalition soldier, a fact that the Kagans mention in their argument that more troops are needed but fail to connect to a lack of widespread anti-coalition sentiment.  If thousands of US troops pour into urban areas like Kandahar City and engage in firefights, popular opinion could turn against them.

The most nonsensical part of the report is the claim that sending more troops to Afghanistan will help the coalition curb the amount of corruption there.  The Kagans argue that the US will have more leverage over Afghan officials, but American threats to cease supporting the Afghan government will not be credible, especially in the wake of a larger troop commitment.

Finally, it is doubtful that the proposed increase in forces levels will be sufficient to achieve the desired results of the surge, which is to pacify the country sufficiently to allow Afghan security forces to takeover responsibility for securing their country in a reasonable amount of time.  The Kagans claim that in two or three years the US will be able to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. But European governments, under intense public pressure, will likely begin withdrawing their soldiers soon, and the US will have to fill the void. The Kagans project that 80,000 new Afghan fighters can be effectively added to the counterinsurgency effort each year, but is highly uncertain that so many new Afghan troops will be ready to conduct counterinsurgency operations on their own anytime in the next few years.

Ultimately, if the US wants to prevent the Taliban and their Al Qaeda affiliates from retaking control of Afghanistan it will have to maintain a sizeable force in that country for many years.  A temporary surge could easily become a long-term endeavor if the promised improvements of such a deployment do not come to fruition as quickly as its advocates predict.  Policymakers must therefore decide if the risks and costs of massively increasing the size of the American footprint in Afghanistan are acceptable, keeping in mind that the American people may not be willing to support the long-term deployment of a force that could potentially equal or exceed the size of the US military presence in Iraq during its apex.

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