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Opinion: Not enough troops for counterinsurgency

Obama's Afghanistan speech did not convince counterinsurgency experts and did not give enough details.

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.”