Robert Pape’s Strategy Proposal for Afghanistan

In an op-ed piece published on Oct. 14 in the New York Times (, military analyst Robert Pape argues that the US should withdraw its ground forces from Afghanistan and rely on naval and airpower to prevent the Taliban from retaking the country (a strategy known as “off-shore balancing”).  He says that Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s requested troop surge of 40,000 will not be sufficient to defeat the Taliban, and claims that it will actually be counterproductive because it will reinforce local perceptions of foreign occupation.

Mr. Pape’s analysis is flawed in several respects.  First, he notes the rise in suicide and roadside-bomb attacks against coalition forces since 2005 and cites it as evidence that the increasing presence of Western troops is strengthening the insurgency rather than weakening it.  But in fact, the insurgency has been getting stronger despite the presence of Western troops, not because of it.  The Taliban needed time to regroup and develop an effective insurgency apparatus after being driven from power in 2001, which is the main reason that the insurgency did not start gaining momentum until 2005.  American and allied forces were augmented because the insurgency was getting more intense, not the other way around.  The unconventional bombings, which Mr. Pape focuses on while ignoring other types of violence and intimidation, have been primarily aimed at foreign targets because such tactics are typically more effective than conventional assaults against well-trained units.  The Taliban does not need to resort to those methods when dealing with weaker foes such as the Afghan security forces or civilians.  The withdrawal of foreign troops might decrease the number of bomb attacks, but it would not take the wind out of the sails of the insurgency; it would simply make it easier for the Taliban to take over the country again.

Mr. Pape notes that US airstrikes have caused civilian casualties and angered many locals.  If this observation is accurate, which Gen. McChrystal agrees it is, then it does not make sense for the US to pursue off-shore balancing and rely even more on airpower than it already does.

Mr. Pape recommends that the US buyoff Pashtun tribes so that they will turn against the Taliban, a development that would be similar to what happened in Iraq when some Sunni tribes turned against Al Qaeda.  But US financial largesse will not be as powerful an incentive to cooperate as Taliban violence.  Most Pashtuns would rather be poor and alive than rich and dead.  The Sunni tribes were more powerful than Al Qaeda in Iraq, which made the change in alliances feasible, but the Taliban are more powerful than the Pashtun tribal militias, which makes it unlikely that the Pashtuns would fight the Taliban for money.

Mr. Pape acknowledges that there is a chance that the Taliban will come back into power if US ground forces pullout, but he claims if such a situation arises the US can team up with anti-Taliban elements and overthrow the  regime.  The Taliban would almost certainly takeover Afghanistan if US soldiers and Marines were withdrawn, in which case  Mr. Pape’s proposed actions would put America and allies right back in the morasse they are in now.  It is also questionable if American policymakers would be willing to reinvade Afghanistan as Mr. Pape envisions.

Mr. Pape may be correct in his assertion that an additional 40,000 troops will not be sufficient to pacify Afghanistan.  However, it is foolish to assume that the Taliban would not seize power and give Al Qaeda sanctuary if the US relies on airpower to combat the insurgency.  Off-shore balancing might work in a place like Korea, where the US has a powerful ally on the ground, but it will not be effective in Afghanistan because a large insurgency cannot be defeated from the air unless nuclear weapons are used, a move that would be unacceptable to American policymakers and the American public.  Until Afghan forces are capable of performing large-scale counterinsurgency operations, a development which might take decades to occur or never occur at all, the US will have to keep a large ground force in Afghanistan if wants to prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the feeble government in Kabul.


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