Opinion: Not enough troops for counterinsurgency

BOSTON — Standing before cadets at West Point but speaking to a wide and skeptical audience in America, Afghanistan and around the world, President Barack Obama sought to deliver two contradictory messages last night: firm resolve and a clear exit strategy.

No one can pull that off. Not even Obama.

The math just doesn’t work on that equation, even if it is presented with the eloquence and force of oratory that Obama does better than any American president since John F. Kennedy.

In a stirring speech delivered to the service men and women wearing crisp, dress uniforms at the historic military campus on the Hudson River in New York, Obama announced that he is sending 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by next summer to hasten the battle to “deny Al Qaeda any safe haven” and to “reverse the momentum of the Taliban.”

He also vowed to begin to transition forces out of Afghanistan in just 18 months.

For many military analysts, the speech was light on details and left many who have studied counterinsurgency wondering if he had truly delivered on a promise to clarify the mission.

“I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, worthy of your service,” he told them.

But it was hard to see how many of them could be convinced that he succeeded in that.

If it is truly a classic counterinsurgency against a movement with the level of popular support held by the Taliban, then 30,000 additional troops is far too little even within the guidelines of the U.S. military’s own field manual for counterinsurgency authored by Gen. David Petraeus.

And if it is a sharpened, counterterrorism strategy aimed at finishing off what the military itself estimates is no more than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, than surely 30,000 more troops is a vastly disproportionate force.

Like I said, the math, or the “battlefield geometry,” as it is referred to in military jargon, just doesn’t seem to add up.

I was in Afghanistan over the summer and spent time at the U.S. military’s counterinsurgency training center on the fringes of Kabul.

What I learned sitting in on the classes as an observer was that there are excellent military minds in the U.S. and coalition forces who understand the culture, religion and complexity of Afghanistan. But in many years of reporting on Afghanistan it is also painfully clear that there are just far too few of those well-informed officers in the field. For the most part, the U.S. troops stay inside the forward operating bases, or FOBs, and when they do venture out have a clumsy approach to the population and a flawed understanding of where they are and why they are there.

The troops even have a name for this cocooned experience in air conditioned huts surrounded by razor wire and checkpoints cut off from the Afghan people. They call it “FOBistan.”

Obama did not succeed in explaining why there should not be more effort to better educate and train the troops who are already there, and get them out of the FOBs and into the communities where they can make a difference. Nor was he convincing that the troops will have sufficient time to train the Afghan forces to be effective.

Steve Metz, an expert on counterinsurgency at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., said the force ratios in Afghanistan even after this surge of troops would be insufficient for counterinsurgency.

And he remained skeptical as to whether the forces that will be training the Afghan army to effectively take control of the country will in fact succeed.

“The big question is not the number of troops, it is whether, by 2011, the Afghan troops can become an effective force. They have a very long way to go,” Metz said.

There were a few surprises to the speech.

The accelerated timetable for beginning the deployment in the first part of next year caught some Pentagon planners off guard. They had expected a 12- to 18-month period for deploying forces to bolster the 68,000 U.S. troops already in the war zone.

"As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," Obama told the cadets in a 45-minute speech.

These U.S. troops, plus an expected extra contingent from NATO allies of perhaps a few thousand, Obama said, "will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011."

Obama delivered his speech to the cadets, but he was addressing many audiences.

He tried to straddle a deep political divide in Washington with Republicans demanding more troops and with Democrats and war-weary Americans looking for a light at the end of the tunnel.

He had to reassure NATO allies and the leaders of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he was not abandoning the war effort, while pressuring them to make sure they hold up their end of the bargain.

Obama was somber and convincing when he said he did not take his decision lightly.

"If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow," he said.

Masood Aziz, a former Afghan diplomat and foreign policy analyst and the founder of the Afghanistan Policy Council, a Washington-based think tank, said of the speech, “It was short on details.”

“He put on the table a military strategy. But there is no such strategy on a civilian side, the civilian, economic and governance strategy that is equivalent to what (Gen. Stanley) McChrystal has put on the table… .  There is a consensus that this can not be won by a military approach, so where is the rest of the strategy?”