Achieving Victory in Afghanistan

In anticipation of Sen. Barack Obama’s visit to Afghanistan I thought it might be appropriate to consider the situation there. Both Sens. McCain and Obama have called for achieving victory in Afghanistan. Sen. Obama has characterized the conflict there as “the war we need to win” and has called for

…taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Sen. McCain recently called for an Iraq-like “surge” in Afghanistan:

It is by applying the tried and true principles of counter-insurgency used in the surge — which Senator Obama opposed — that we will win in Afghanistan. With the right strategy and the right forces, we can succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I know how to win wars. And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory.

But victory in Afghanistan, however defined, is far from a sure thing. Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history and America’s preeminent expert on Shi’ism, recently expressed pretty serious skepticism:

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don’t think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq.

ISAF Commander Dan McNeill in Der Spiegel estimated the requirements for pacifying Afghanistan:

ISAF Commander McNeill has said himself that according to the current counterterrorism doctrine, it would take 400,000 troops to pacify Afghanistan in the long term. But the reality is that he has only 47,000 soldiers under his command, together with another 18,000 troops fighting at their sides as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and possibly another 75,000 reasonably well-trained soldiers in the Afghan army by the end of the year. All told, there is still a shortfall of 260,000 men.

A year and a half ago, Col. Pat Lang, formerly an intelligence and special forces officer and the first professor of Arabic at the U. S. Military Academy, expressed optimism with respect to Afghanistan at a Middle East Policy Council forum:

In fact, if you had more troops and more people who were skilled at doing the kind of work that I’m familiar with and the right kind of diplomats and more foreign assistance and things of that kind, I think you could really still make something of Afghanistan. And it probably wouldn’t take a whole lot more in the way of troops.

Since then the following was written by a guest blogger at Col. Lang’s blog:

The US is in a bind. It has to deny the Pakhtun insurgency (the Taliban are only one part of it) the use of the tribal areas as a base. With Pakistan showing no will to control these areas, it is threatening to take unilateral military action there. This will obviously be through air strikes and Special Forces raids, both notorious for their inevitable “collateral damage”. This will add fuel to the fire of militancy, pushing more recruits into the ranks of the jihad, especially the deadly suicide bombers. An insurgency cannot be defeated by a few successful decapitation strikes, or even by turning a rugged mountainous base area into a free-fire zone. The more perceptive US commanders probably know this, but they have to be seen to do something about the continuous guerrilla attacks. How long will the NATO allies stick around fighting an unwinnable war? How long will the US public put up with it?

But that is not the worst of it. Believing Pakistan to be complicit in the US strikes on their people, the tribal militants will turn on it; they have already seen the deadly effect of their suicide bombs in the teeming cities. An already fragile governmental and societal structure will face severe stress; anything could happen. One thing is certain : the religious fundamentalists in the country will take full advantage of this turmoil. For the US, the first impact will be on their supply line through Pakistan. Then, Pakistan itself, as an ally, will be at risk.

One of the most difficult things for both statesman and soldier is to recognize a war as unwinnable before it is proven in the field.

Some Afghans have expressed substantial skepticism about the value of increased foreign troop strength in the country:

Kabul, July 20 (DPA) Ahead of Senator Barack Obama’s expected visit to Afghanistan, the US presidential hopeful’s plans to increase US troops in the country was being met with both hope and scepticism from Afghans.

“Increasing troops doesn’t help Afghanistan at all,” warned Kabeer Ranjbar, a member of the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly. “Afghanistan’s governmental institutions need to be reformed. The problem is the Afghanistan government itself.”

“Afghanistan government needs to gain people’s support,” he said. “If the government doesn’t have people’s support, increasing of forces doesn’t help Afghanistan.”

I’ve long been a skeptic about our efforts in Afghanistan. The logistics of supplying a larger force than we have there now is truly daunting, complicated by the reality that everything we bring into the country must be brought by air or overland through Pakistan. That increases the cost of operations there.

The operations are quite dangerous, too. Our casualty rate per 1,000 troops has been higher in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq for some time.

Since our invasion in 2001 we have successfully overthrown the Taliban and introduced a new government in the country. Unfortunately, that government doesn’t have a great deal of influence outside the capital city. We have been partially successful at expelling Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the country but are unable to completely secure the country as long as Al Qaeda and the Taliban remnants are able to flee across the border into Pakistan. The Pakistani government has either been unable or unwilling to prevent this and, understandably, is reluctant to allow our forces free rein in their country.

There are a number of questions we might consider. What would victory in Afghanistan look like? Given present constraints how can it be achieved? What will the cost of achieving it be? How long will it take? Are the costs and timeframe politically acceptable?

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Middle East, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. yetanotherjohn says:

    I am somewhat skeptical of Juan Cole as he has for a long time been saying that Iraq was not winnable. Recent events have shown that while the ultimate question of winning in Iraq is still up in the air, the issue is by no means ‘unwinnable’.

    As the the number of troops needed, I haven’t seen anything that says you have to eat the whole elephant at once. A ‘clear and hold’ effort that started in the major cities and moved out would not require all 400K at the same time.

    At the same time, the logistical issues you raised are very real. Further, if nothing else, Vietnam has shown us the problem of allowing political boundary sanctuaries. So Iran and Pakistan are going to eventually be dealt with.

    The question I have for Obama is exactly how he would deal with the Pakistan problem. What can Obama do that Bush hasn’t or McCain couldn’t besides smile prettier when he meets with Pakistan leadership? And if the answer is to conduct war in/against Pakistan (overtly or covertly), I would love to have those on the left explain how that is good and right while invading Iraq wasn’t.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Afghanistan has a population of 32 million. Of those fewer than 5 million live in its dozen or so major cities (Kabul is the only city with more than 500,000 people). Unlike Iraq Afghanistan is overwhelmingly rural, mostly small villages. That’s not a good environment for the “clear and hold” strategy you’re advocating.

  3. Anthony says:

    “And if the answer is to conduct war in/against Pakistan (overtly or covertly), I would love to have those on the left explain how that is good and right while invading Iraq wasn’t.”

    I’m not on the Left and I supported the war in Iraq going in, but it seems to me that “Because Al Qaeda are actually primarily based out of Pakistan and it’s their key recruiting ground, whereas Iraq… er… wasn’t” would be a response that at the very least ticks a lot of boxes in terms of intellectual consistency.

    Dave, have you read Rory Stewart’s recent output on Afghanistan? I’m not sure how right he is, but he does genuinely have very extensive experience on the ground and first rate contacts in country, probably more than 99 per cent of the military people and one hundred per cent of the punditry, so it’s worth at least taking a shufti.

    On the troops issue, my instinct is that if we’re going to continue our current strategy (if it can be dignified as such), then extra troops would be very helpful. The question is whether that’s the right approach.

  4. Anderson says:

    The Hindu Kush is a miserable place that cannot be “held” by any government, in any meaningful sense, for any meaningful period of time.

    We should not be wasting our time, blood, and treasure trying to do so.

    Provide aid to Afghanistan, keep some troops there for training & to provide some logistical support for occasional special-forces ops, and devote our attention to intel gathering that can support such ops — that, I think, is the best we can hope to do in Afghanistan.

    N.b. that I don’t think such ops must cease at the Pakistani border. If Pakistan can’t control the area, then we should feel reasonably free to make necessary incursions, provided they’re relatively rare and sufficiently deniable to save face for Pakistan’s gov’t.

  5. jj says:

    McCain focus’ too much on what the opposition is saying and doing..He still doesn’t know what he would do himself..blindly he criticizes others..
    Petraus, Petraus, Petraus, surge, surge, surge..
    What else you got, John?

    ANYWAY, US foreign policy is a revolving matter who gets in, it’ll be what ever it is..on and on..I would rather see Obama win than the flapping penguin, McCain and hearing that hateful racist mouth for the next four years.

    I’m not voting for either..I will vote for a third party this year..I’m sick of the same ole tired fat cats who don’t listen to the People.

  6. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    I would listen to the man who is in charge in Iraq. He will soon be commander of Southern Command. He is solving the problem in Iraq. If it can be done, Petraus can and will get the job done. scholars can postulate the solution. The military finds the solution.

  7. steve says:

    That should read “the military scholars” find the solution. Petraeus and his gang mostly have Ph.D.’s. From places like Princeton too. The limit on military success will be establishing a legitimate government.


  8. Bithead says:


    The question of victory in Iraq came up a few days ago. I suggested at the time this was a regional concern, not one of an individual country, and that a victory in Iraq *alone* was useless.

    I now submit the same answer for Afghanistan,a nd for the same reason.

    That said, I’m with YAJ, here.

  9. Michael says:

    Perhaps we should just encourage India to take a more aggressive stand on Kashmir. A short-term incursion by a few armored divisions should do the trick.

  10. anjin-san says:

    I would love to have those on the left explain how that is good and right while invading Iraq wasn’t

    Possibly because the people who murdered thousands of Americans on 9/11 are there and not in Iraq.

    But then I forgot for a moment. Justice for the 9/11 victims is not part of the Bush/McCain agenda…

  11. DL says:

    Victory in Afghanistan is difficult -if not impossible, nonetheless, it is imperative that the radical Islamists and their supporters understand the cost of doing what they do will be met with resistence and not apppeasement. That remains one of the big questions for the American voter.

  12. jj says:

    We win what?.. in trade for our blood and treasure?

    We have sold our country for the adventures of the elite..our infrastructure is sold and mortgaged. What more could a terrorist want ..that our government hasn’t already done..
    we’ve lost. We are owned and have lost our freedoms for WHAT?