Loose Change

by Clifford D. May

This morning up on the Hill, the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy held a conference on Afghanistan. I stopped by to hear remarks by former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. To be candid, he said nothing noteworthy. A smart and genial man, he chose to be diplomatic — saying things that were entirely unobjectionable, but neither helpful nor provocative.

So I stayed on to hear Sen. Carl Levin. He argued that in Afghanistan a “change in strategy is essential and more important than force levels.” His implication: We can have a change in strategy without increasing force levels.

The new strategy we’re talking about is COIN — counterinsurgency. It is a strategy that Senator Levin opposed in Iraq, a point he neglected to mention.

Anyone who knows anything about COIN knows it’s labor-intensive. The reason why was explained to me in simple fashion almost exactly a year ago by a senior U.S. officer in Zabul, a city in southeastern Afghanistan. He showed me a map and pointed to our position. He moved his finger to indicate where there was a large Taliban force not far away.

“We could eliminate them tomorrow,” he said. “It would not be difficult. The problem: What would I do the day after? I don’t have troops I can leave there for the long term. And I don’t have Afghan troops trained well enough to hold the area on their own. So those locals who cooperated with us — and local cooperation is always very useful — would probably get their heads cuts off before long.”

The fundamentals of COIN are clear, hold, and build. Clear out the bad guys, hold the territory, and build on that success by creating basic governing institutions, a little economic development, and adequate self-defense. For Levin to suggest this mission can be accomplished with fewer troops than the president’s commanders in the field believe they need has to be seen as ignorant, disingenuous, irresponsible — or some combination thereof.

When the senator finished speaking, the first to come to the microphone to ask a question was Medea Benjamin of Code Pink asking why Senator Levin was not calling for an immediate withdrawal. I did not stay.

Also, while I was in Afghanistan a year ago, New York Times correspondent David Rohde was kidnapped by the Taliban. My NRO column on what he learned — and what we can learn — from his experience is here.

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