The Corner

Will on Afghanistan

In response to George Will’s column “Why are we still in Afghanistan?,” it is worth noting some factual inaccuracies. There are considerably more than 4,000 counterinsurgents in Helmand Province. Will may find the British contribution “risible” — a rather offensive statement considering the number of soldiers Britain has lost in Afghanistan and the size of its military contributions to both Iraq and Afghanistan; others might make various more specific criticisms of the British performance from a technical perspective; but there are still 9,000 British military personnel in Afghanistan — most of them in Helmand, and most of them fighting hard. This misstatement is part of a larger problem summed up in the following two sentences:

Counterinsurgency theory concerning the time and the ratio of forces required to protect the population indicates that, nationwide, Afghanistan would need hundreds of thousands of coalition troops, perhaps for a decade or more. That is inconceivable.

If we are quoting counterinsurgency theory, then we might do well to be specific about it. COIN theory calls for one counterinsurgent for every 50 people in a conflict area (although this is hardly a hard-and-fast law, it turns out to be a reasonably good rule of thumb). There are perhaps 16 million people in the Pashtun belt — the area in which almost all insurgent activity occurs in Afghanistan. The one-to-50 ratio would call for about 320,000 counterinsurgents in that area. But that group would include indigenous forces. Granting Will’s anecdotal observations that the Afghan police are at best ineffective (which is far too sweeping a statement), the Afghan National Army is at least as good as many of the organizations that have functioned as counterinsurgents in Iraq. The ANA numbers about 90,000 right now, and it can be expanded to 134,000 next year, and perhaps to 240,000 within a couple of years after that. There are around 100,000 U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan now. So: How inconceivable is it? And for how long?

The surge of forces that some (including me) are proposing is intended to bridge the gap between current Afghan capacity and their future capacity, while simultaneously reducing the insurgency’s capabilities. Whatever may happen in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency theory does not call for the deployment of hundreds of thousands of coalition forces for decades. Lastly, neither waving the bloody shirt nor rudely disparaging the efforts of allies who have shed their own blood alongside our troops is appropriate to this discussion. But doing both in the same column is simply reprehensible.

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