Obama Team Should Reappraise Afghan War Efforts Before Doubling Troop Levels

The front-page story in the Washington Post last Tuesday reports the intention of Barack Obama to commit a stunningly irrational blunder: to escalate dramatically the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan even though he has no clear proposal from the Pentagon on what is to be accomplished with the new “surge” in troops.

The president-elect “intends to sign off on Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan,” according to the Post. But it adds that Obama’s national security team sees the troop increase as doing nothing more than “help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy….”

Why isn’t the Obama team waiting until it has been able to “reappraise” the war effort and figure out what, if anything, would actually work before doubling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan? Why doesn’t Obama simply tell the Pentagon, “I’m not approving a major military escalation until you give me a plan that makes sense?”

The strange reversal of logic that has put the troop escalation in front of the war strategy horse should be a warning signal to Obama that the U.S. military is not on the right track in Afghanistan and doesn’t know how to get there.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and the military leadership have already had months to develop a new strategy. According to the Post, however, they haven’t even been able to agree on the nature of the war. The military is “looking for Obama to resolve critical internal debates, including the relative merits of conducting conventional combat vs. targeted guerrilla war,” the Post reported.

The strategy, which has been pursued by the U.S. military under Gen. David D. McKiernan since 2005, with notable lack of success, has considered attacking the Taliban to be the main military objective, according to military critics.

An alternative proposal presented to Gates by military officers who served in Afghanistan before the Taliban reemerged as de facto government in large parts of the country, would shift the objective from killing “Taliban” to protecting the people. But that would involve admitting that the existing strategy is wrong, and it has obviously encountered strong resistance from McKiernan and his staff in the field.

This is not an isolated episode of the military refusing to learn from its past mistakes. In fact it is inherent in the nature of U.S. military institutions. Col. John A. Nagl, the primary author of the U.S. Army’s new counterinsurgency manual, showed in his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2002), that the U.S. army refused to learn any lessons from its failure in Vietnam and instead created a comfortable narrative about how it could have won the war if only the civilians had allowed it to do so. He found that the army lacked the “organizational self-awareness” necessary to “change organizational culture.”

That’s why sending more troops to Afghanistan can only have one result: the military will end up simply doing more of what it knows how to do. And because the U.S. army is not capable of learning; it will continue to generate more Afghan resistance to the U.S. occupation. Last October, when I asked Gen. David Barno, the commander in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, whether the number of U.S airstrikes — and thus innocent civilians killed — wouldn’t inevitably increase with an increase in U.S. troops, he agreed. “When you’ve got that tool in your tool box,” he said, “there is a high risk that you will use it even though it puts your strategic interest at risk.”

Nagl shows how the bureaucratic resistance to change within the command structure made adaptation to reality impossible. He notes that the commander is screened from the truth by his subordinates and quotes the man responsible for “pacification” in Vietnam, Robert Komer, as calling that war a “tragedy of bureaucratic inability to adapt to unconventional situations.”

In a recent speech to the Atlantic Council, Gen. McKiernan revealed just how out of touch he is with Afghan realities. He told of meeting the governor of a district in Ghazni Province, who he asked whether things are “better than they were two years ago.” He quoted the district governor as saying, “Two years ago transiting across my district was [sic] about 1,000 Taliban. Today there’s still Taliban but it’s about 200, and people are taking their produce to the market. Children are going to school.” McKiernan concluded, “[I]f you have that kind of human capital to potentially work with, the glass is half-full,” and “Afghanistan will turn out much better than we found it if the will of the international community remains strong.”

But the intrepid journalist Nir Rosen, who traveled through Afghanistan with the Taliban last year, reported in Rolling Stone in October, that Ghazni:

[H]as fallen to the Taliban. Foreigners who venture to Ghazni often wind up kidnapped or killed. In defiance of the central government, the Taliban governor in the province issues separate ID cards and passports for the Taliban regime, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Farmers increasingly turn to the Taliban, not the American-backed authorities, for adjudication of land disputes.

McKiernan was apparently clueless about what was really going on in Ghazni province, just 100 miles south of Kabul. This cluelessness is not because of McKiernan personally. It is the way the system works. It helps explain why there is no agreement on strategy accompanying the military demand for more troops in Afghanistan, and it is why the Obama administration will be engulfed in an endless, failing war in Afghanistan unless he says no to escalation now.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.