Opinion: Obama has a hard sell on Afghanistan troop increase

BOSTON — When President Obama announced Tuesday night that he will “finish the job” in Afghanistan and the White House began its hard sell to the media on the idea of a troop increase of approximately 30,000, there is one looming question that rises above all others.

What does “finish the job” mean?

There is a desperate need to clarify the mission in Afghanistan that far exceeds any consideration of troop size in Afghanistan.

When Obama delivers his national address on Tuesday and announces the most consequential foreign policy decision of his presidency, he will have to sell the troop increase with a contradictory mix of resolve and exit strategy in a war that is entering its ninth year.

It will be a hard sell to an increasingly skeptical American public, an over-stretched military, a faltering international coalition, wary Afghan neighbors such as Pakistan and Russia and a Democrat-controlled congress that might for the first time resist getting in line with a popular president. It will even be a hard sell to the military brass and political hard-liners who will see it a halting, half step toward what is needed for success.

But as he tries to close a fateful deal, the thing to look for is not whether it is 20,000 or 25,000 or 30,000 or even 40,000 troops, but whether he has succeeded in clarifying the mission and clearly explaining what he means by “finish the job.”

Is this a comprehensive and classic counter-insurgency campaign intended to deliver a death blow to Al Qaeda as well as the Taliban? Or is this a more focused counter-terrorism strategy that will cripple Al Qaeda and contain the Taliban by bringing into the fold moderate elements and chasing from the cities the more militant factions?

If it is indeed a broad counter-insurgency campaign as President Obama’s rhetoric in recent weeks and the leaks from General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and others would suggest then the math doesn’t add up and the administration’s  proposed troop increase is a perilous miscalculation.

Here’s why.

Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters who live and die by the ideology of Osama bin Laden, according to the military’s own assessment. The Taliban is a multi-layered, multi-factional, cross-border ethnic, social and religious armed movement with wide support and deep roots in Afghanistan, particularly in its most remote regions. The many elements of the Taliban live and die and are in fact bound together by an enduring commitment to resisting corruption among Afghan leaders who control Kabul and resist any empire that should try to occupy its land.

A fight against the ragtag remnants of Al Qaeda does not require any more troops, it requires instead better, more focused tactics and much better intelligence, particularly from neighboring Pakistan. A fight against the Taliban is never going to have sufficient troops levels even with the the 100,000 U.S. troops that will be in country if and when the 30,000 troop increase takes effect. Just ask the British military historians and the retired generals of the former Soviet Union who still remember their humiliating retreat from Afghanistan like so many empires before them.

This calculation of doom is based not only on the lessons of history, but also on what is known as “battlefield geometry,” the laws of which are very clearly spelled out in the U.S. military’s own field manual for counter insurgency.

That manual was co-authored by one of the world’s greatest military minds on counter insurgency, General David Petraeus, and in the document he calls for troop ratios that would far exceed — by at least a factor of two — what the U.S. and its withering coalition partners would have on the ground with this proposed increase.

Furthermore, a troop increase of tens of thousands more U.S. soldiers could significantly hinder an effective counter-terrorism strategy by alienating the Pashtun villages where the Taliban is strongest, according to many leading counter-insurgency experts from Washington to Helmand.

Troops that are thrown into Afghanistan without a deep understanding of its history and its tribal structure will inevitably make serious mistakes and likely be seen as an occupying force. So a bungled troop increase could, in effect, inflame the Taliban and make it stronger.

This is a critical decision by President Obama with enormous import for our country, for military families who will pay the price and for Afghanistan. No one should fault the president for careful deliberation, which the far right’s commentators prefer to call “dithering.” But it is fair and important to challenge the president on this proposed troop increase and to press him hard with an eye toward history and to ask whether his “finish the job” comment will years down the road ring just as hollow in Afghanistan as the “mission accomplished” sign came to signify the failures of the president before him in Iraq.