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Obama Versus Osama

US helicopters of the International Security Assistance Force, arrive in Badghis province, Afghanistan, Nov. 30, 2008.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul
This column was written by Michael Crowley.
Around the time of the November election, John Nagl, a retired Army Colonel, took a helicopter ride across Afghanistan. What he saw below worried him. Nagl, who is 42 with trim brown hair and academic eyeglasses, spent three years in Iraq, including as part of a tank battalion in the Sunni Triangle, where he witnessed brutal combat in the war's worst years. A West Point graduate and Rhodes Scholar, Nagl applied the lessons of his Iraq experience to the Army-Marine Counterinsurgency Field Manual, which he helped write and which was published last year. He currently specializes in the study of war and counterinsurgency at the Center for a New American Security, a center-left Washington think tank, and it is in this capacity that he recently traveled to the Afghan war zone. As his military chopper swooped over high mountain ridges and plunging valleys, he grimly surveyed the size and the inhospitality of the Afghan terrain. Winning in Afghanistan, he realized, would take more than "a little tweak," as he put it to me from back in Washington a few weeks later, when he was still shaking off the gritty "Kabul crud" that afflicts traveler's lungs. It would take time, money, and blood. "It's a doubling of the U.S. commitment," Nagl said. "It's a doubling of the Afghan army, maybe a tripling. It's going to require a tax increase and a bigger army."

For the left in the Bush era, America's two wars have long been divided into the good and the bad. Iraq was the moral and strategic catastrophe, while Afghanistan--home base for the September 11 attacks--was a righteous fight. This dichotomy was especially appealing to liberals because it allowed them to pair their call for withdrawal from Iraq with a call for escalation in Afghanistan. Leaving Iraq wasn't about retreating; it was about bolstering another front, one where our true strategic interests lie. The left could meet conservative charges of defeatism with the rhetoric of victory. Barack Obama is now getting ready to turn this idea into policy. He has already called for sending an additional two U.S. brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops, to the country and may wind up proposing a much larger escalation in what candidate Obama has called "the war we need to win."

But, as Nagl understands at the ground level, winning in Afghanistan will take more than just shifting a couple of brigades from the bad war to the good one. Securing Afghanistan--and preserving a government and society we can be proud of--is vastly more challenging than the rhetoric of the campaign has suggested. Taliban fighters are bolder and crueler than ever--beheading dozens of men at a time, blasting the capital with car bombs, killing NATO troops with sniper fire and roadside explosives. Meanwhile, the recent savagery in Mumbai has India and Pakistan at each other's throats again, a development that indirectly benefits Afghan insurgents.

The challenge of exiting Iraq was supposed to be the first great foreign policy test of Obama's presidency. But it is Afghanistan that now looms as the potential quagmire. Winning the good war will, at a minimum, require the most sophisticated counterinsurgency techniques developed by Nagl and his colleagues, which take enormous resources. But, even then, it's not at all clear what victory looks like, or whether it's even possible in a country known as the graveyard of empires. All of which raises the question of how much longer Afghanistan really can be considered the good war.

On November 12, while Nagl was touring Afghanistan, two men on a motorcycle pulled up to a group of teenage schoolgirls in the southern city of Kandahar. Using a child's water pistol, one of the men sprayed three girls in the face--the squirt gun was loaded not with water but with battery acid--leaving them disfigured. The girls' apparent sin was that they were attending school--a violation of the Taliban's medieval sharia law.

That America's October 2001 invasion failed to impose peace and stability is not exactly a surprise. Afghanistan is like a Chinese finger trap: The harder you try to solve it, the more it constricts you. Ask the Russians. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent military forces to install a pro-Soviet government in Kabul. At its peak in the country, the Red Army numbered some 140,000. But, after ten years of inconclusive fighting, 15,000 dead, and tens of thousands more wounded, the battered Soviets mounted a humiliating retreat--one that probably helped speed the collapse of their empire. ("They've already repeated all of our mistakes," one former Soviet general from the Afghan campaign recently said to The New York Times of the U.S. occupation.) Or ask the British. More than a century earlier, the United Kingdom dispatched a huge army to Afghanistan from India to secure it against Russian influence. That adventure, too, was a disaster, ending in a retreat of 16,500 troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Only one survivor made it--his life spared by the Afghans so he could recount the ghastly tale for others.

From the beginning, experts with this historical perspective in mind warned that crushing the Taliban was impossible: "No matter how successful the U.S. campaign is," wrote the Council on Foreign Relations's Kimberly Marten Zisk in November 2001, "never will all the rebels defect to the winning side. The rebels who are left will not stop fighting, no matter how hard conditions get." The past seven years have made those words look prescient. Today, the Taliban is as bold--and as brutal--as it has been since the United States first drove it from power. The Pashtun Islamic radicals who controlled the country from 1996 to 2001, and provided safe harbor to Osama bin Laden before September 11, have found sanctuary and regrouped just across Afghanistan's eastern border, in Pakistan's self-governing northwestern tribal areas.

John Nagl knows something about how to fight insurgencies like this. As a student at West Point, he studied the communist revolt against British occupiers in Malaya in the 1950s and the doomed U.S. adventure in Vietnam. His doctoral thesis was subtitled, "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife"--a phrase coined by T.E. Lawrence to describe the challenge facing the Ottoman Turks battling Arab rebellions. One of the central points of the counterinsurgency doctrine studied by Nagl is that brute force is counterproductive. "Insurgencies are ultimately defeated not by killing or capturing every insurgent but by changing peoples' minds," he says. That requires the use of economic and political power as well as military force. It also requires manpower. Lots of it. "To defeat an insurgency," he says, "you have to provide security to the population on the ground."

Nagl's rule of thumb, the one found in the counterinsurgency manual, calls for at least a 1-to-50 ratio of security forces to civilians in contested areas. Applied to Afghanistan, which has both a bigger population (32 million) and a larger land mass (647,500 square miles) than Iraq, that gets you to some large numbers fast. Right now, the United States and its allies have some 65,000 troops in Afghanistan, as compared to about 140,000 in Iraq. By Nagl's ratio, Afghanistan's population calls for more than 600,000 security forces. Even adjusting for the relative stability of large swaths of the country, the ideal number could still total around 300,000--more than a quadrupling of current troop levels. Eventually, Afghanistan's national army could shoulder most of that burden. But, right now, those forces number a ragtag 60,000, a figure Nagl believes will need to at least double and maybe triple. Standing up a force of that size, as the example of Iraq has shown us, will take several years and consume billions of U.S. dollars.

For Obama, winning support for such an enterprise won't be simple. Despite the feel-good consensus of the campaign that Afghanistan is a noble, must-win cause, he'll be under pressure from multiple fronts to scale back America's ambitions. American public opinion, for starters, is already beginning to sour on the war. In August, a USA Today/Gallup poll found that 34 percent of Americans think the United States "made a mistake" in sending military forces to Afghanistan. That's up nine points from a year ago. (In early 2002, just 6 percent of respondents agreed with that statement.) Another poll, conducted in early September poll by GfK Roper Public Affairs, found that 41 percent oppose sending more troops. And a July ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 45 percent believe the war's costs have not been worth its benefits--and, moreover, that defeating global terrorism does not require victory over the Taliban. "People can't quite get back to why we're in Afghanistan," acknowledges Democratic Representative Ellen Tauscher of California, a foreign-affairs specialist who recently visited the country.

Obama may face particular resistance from his left flank. Many liberal doves were never thrilled by the original invasion of Afghanistan but muted their criticism to devote their energies to decrying the Iraq war. But, now that there is consensus that the Iraq war was a mistake, there is growing vocal discontent from these quarters on Afghanistan as well. The Nation's editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, recently argued, for instance, that "it is troubling" that Obama "continues to talk about escalating the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan." In an essay also published by The Nation, Tariq Ali referred to the mission there as "Operation Enduring Disaster."

Nor is the military so gung ho about another long fight with evasive insurgents. A major drawdown from Iraq will theoretically free up the forces for a big escalation in Afghanistan. But, in reality, the military badly needs a rest: "What I see happening is literally every soldier who is withdrawn from Iraq is going to end up in Afghanistan," says Nagl. "And, frankly, the ground forces of our great nation were looking forward to a bit of a break."

Conservative and centrist critics of a calendar-based Iraq withdrawal may support that thinking. These people see a zero-sum contest for resources between Iraq and Afghanistan. Their fear--and expectation--is that Iraq is not yet ready to stand on its own, and that a U.S. withdrawal along Obama's stated timeline of roughly 16 months will lead to new instability--requiring a pause in the exit plan. "My fear is that this desire to shift troops over to Afghanistan is going to screw things up in Iraq, and, at the end of the day, Iraq is more important," says Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution.

Finally, some of America's key allies may balk at a greater sacrifice, even for the "good war." While Obamamania swept across Europe this fall, resulting in massive crowds and swooning heads of state, it remains to be seen whether Obama's powers of persuasion can reverse public opinion abroad. According to a mid-November poll, more than two-thirds of Britons want their 8,000 troops out of the country within a year. In August, Al Qaeda killed ten French peacekeepers (four were captured and skinned alive, according to The Daily Telegraph). The country's worst military loss in 25 years, the massacre has contributed to majority opposition to the war. In Canada, which supplies about 2,500 troops (and has lost 98 since 2002), one recent poll showed that 59 percent of the population opposes extending its mission beyond 2009.

Clearly, doing counterinsurgency right, in the way that Nagl envisions, will require Obama to make a new and impassioned case for saving Afghanistan. He will have to remind Americans just why it is their sons and daughters are fighting and dying in godforsaken mountain passes and poppy fields. Tauscher hopes Obama can rally the nation around this cause. "I think we're all counting on President-elect Obama's significant oration skills and his vision as commander-in-chief of what's in the American national security interest," she says. But the trouble is that the question of what, exactly, is in the American interest in Afghanistan remains extremely murky.

On May 23, 2005 George W. Bush welcomed Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai to Washington. As the two leaders met the press in the White House's East Room, Bush praised his counterpart as a beacon of freedom and democracy. "I am honored to stand by the first democratically elected leader in the five- thousand-year history of Afghanistan. Congratulations," Bush rhapsodized.

Afghanistan earned its status as the "good war" not just because it was a direct response to the September 11 attacks, but because--unlike in Iraq--it quickly produced an affable, Westernized leader who was the product of a democratic process. But times have changed. Public disapproval among Afghans of Karzai's weak and corruption-rife government has doubled in the past year, according to a summer poll by the Asia Foundation. Karzai himself is now viewed as ineffectual, corrupt, or both. His brother has been implicated in heroin trafficking on a massive scale. And, now, the West is considering its alternatives. According to a leaked diplomatic cable recently published by a French newspaper, the British ambassador to Afghanistan has declared the country in "crisis," and thinks the "realistic" solution is the installation of "an acceptable dictator." For many Afghanistan-watchers, such an outcome would be no surprise. "I can only laugh" at Bush's dreams of democracy, says Les Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's in our bones as Americans to think that we can democratize those societies. It's a vast cultural ignorance."