A Second Surge?
NRO talks to retired general John M. Keane about Afghanistan.


Robert Costa

Keane says our leaders need to take the time to explain not only the complex nature of irregular warfare, but also the progress we’re making. “The American people are willing to listen,” he says. “We have to say: Here’s our strategy, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. Some of it won’t be so happy-to-glad. It will be very sobering. In certain areas, there won’t be satisfactory progress for some time.”

Explaining an irregular war’s progress involves using some measures that may seem odd to those used to conventional wars. “In Iraq, remember, the number-one definition of progress was a reduction in the level of violence,” says Keane. “The counter-offensive and surge were able to dramatically reduce violence and bring a back a normalcy of life to the people — getting people back to their jobs, restarting normal commerce, etc.”

The public needs benchmarks for progress in Afghanistan, as well. “If all the American people see are casualties,” says Keane, “then they have every right to question the war.”

Should President Obama choose to make a case for a new strategy in Afghanistan, he may decide to let McChrystal come to the Hill to testify, much as Bush invited Petraeus to Washington to explain the Iraq surge. It’s an idea that is gaining steam among both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Keane says such a gambit may yield new support, but he has misgivings.

“While it may have been somewhat more compelling for General Petraeus to testify on Iraq during 2007 — because the administration at the time had lost all credibility on the war — clearly, that is not the case [with] Afghanistan,” says Keane. “It appears more appropriate for the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and/or General Petraeus to do so in order to avoid bringing a battlefield commander back to Washington at a critical time.”

Ultimately, Keane says, the war in Afghanistan won’t be saved by taking Capitol Hill. What is required, says Keane, is the president’s decision to add more forces to the region. We need “enough troops to be able to protect the population as well as kill and capture the insurgents,” says Keane. “The obvious group that needs more people is the Afghan National Security Force. Overall, there is a genuine consensus that forces will have to grow to 400,000, a figure which includes both the police and military. That number may only be possible, at the earliest, by 2013 or 2012. The problem is that that’s an ambitious schedule, and we still don’t have enough troops to have an effective counterinsurgency strategy, which, at its heart, is protecting the people.”
In particular, we need to protect the population in currently contested areas. “The enemy will seize on that weakness,” Keane says. “We can’t afford that. The only way to fix the situation is to increase [the U.S. share of NATO forces in the theater]. The problem is that non-U.S. NATO forces are at their political limits in what they can provide. Sure, they may be able to provide more trainers, but probably not any substantial increase in combat forces. Therefore, by default, there has to be more U.S. forces.”

Of course, this comes at the expense of multilateralism. “Make no mistake,” says Keane. “We are ‘Americanizing’ the war. That’s just the reality. We need those new forces because we can’t wait till 2012 or 2013 when the Afghan National Security Force can have a real impact.”

Once security has been established in the country — but not before then — our efforts can focus more on goals such as improving government affairs, reconstruction, reducing corruption, and cracking down on narcotics and opium, Keane says.

America also has a larger role to play in the Afghan region, he adds. “We have to draw back and look at Pakistan,” a country that’s “inextricably linked” with Afghanistan, says Keane. “This is a country of strategic significance, and it’s a major problem that we have to deal with. Why? They don’t believe us when we say that we will stay and stick to our goals in the region. That’s the elephant in the room when dealing with Pakistan, with both its political and military leaders. They point to evidence from the past where we haven’t followed through that undercuts what we’re trying to do now.”

And what about George Will’s ”shoot from afar” strategy? “It speaks from a frame of reference of ignorance,” says Keane. “Reaching for a technological solution, when the war is fundamentally about people, is a mistake. There is no such thing as a ‘drone solution’ or ‘missile solution’ in Afghanistan.”

Keane believes that if the Obama administration adopts the right strategies — by increasing troop levels, protecting the population, convincing insurgent factions to give up and join the political process, and explaining the progress made to the American people — the war is winnable. For President Obama, Keane’s advice may come at an inopportune time. The commander-in-chief is busy with health care, Iran, and the Olympics. But Afghanistan deserves his attention, and he can’t abandon it after eight years’ worth of U.S. efforts.

— Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.