Friday, October 27, 2006

Color me skeptical

Paul Krugman in the NYT today:
If Afghanistan were in as bad shape as Iraq, stabilizing it would require at least 600,000 troops — an obvious impossibility.

However, things in Afghanistan aren’t yet as far gone as they are in Iraq, and it’s possible that a smaller force — one in that range of 4 to 10 per 1,000 that has been sufficient in some cases — might be enough to stabilize the situation. But right now, the forces trying to stabilize Afghanistan are absurdly small: we’re trying to provide security to 30 million people with a force of only 32,000 Western troops and 77,000 Afghan national forces.
First off, notice the use of the word "might" and other such ambiguities. Krugman's not being sheepish, he's just being honest - we don't know if Afghanistan is salvageable with a smaller force, or whether a major occupation is required. (For that matter, we don't know if a major occupation will work, either.)

But Krugman's own guesstimate here shows the problem - the high end of this range (10 soldiers per 1,000) means an army of 300,000. (1% of 30 million = 300,000) That's almost triple the current forces, even if we include the Afghan forces, and almost an order of magnitude larger than present if we don't include Karzai's bodyguards.

A few more implications follow: the low end of Krugman's numbers imply a force of 120,000 is necessary to pacify the country. But if we do include the ANF, we've already got a force of 110,000 in-country. Yet the situation is deteriorating. (Operation Medusa may already need a do-over, as of yesterday's NYT.) This implies either a) we can't rely on the ANF; b) we can't rely on low-ball estimates of the forces required; or c) 10,000 soldiers is the difference between victory and defeat.

The median between 120,000 and 300,000 is 210,000 soldiers. If we arbitrarily take that as our starting point, we see the problems - combining the existing, in-country forces with the American and British forces in Iraq just barely brings us to 210,000. (30,000 NATO + 180,000 OIF forces.) And remember, this is still assuming optimistic numbers. What if we're still 90,000 troops short, as the higher estimates suggest? Do we hope the ANF can fill that gap? Is hope a plan?

Moreover - and this is the bedrock problem for this idea - it's difficult for me to see the American and British militaries, already stretched to the breaking point, committing 100% of their Iraqi forces to Afghanistan. Frankly, we'd be lucky if we saw half of those troops arrive in Kabul or Kandahar.

Finally, this plan assumes that the US military has learned its lessons from Iraq and is willing to adopt a reality-based counterinsurgency doctrine, an assumption I'm not willing to wager more lives on. Does anyone want to wager on the competence of a plan for Afghanistan that continues to rely on the competence of the Bush Administration?

There seems to be this hope - having collectively waged the Afghanistan war on the cheap for the last five years - that we can now salvage it with a quick transfusion of labour from Baghdad to Kabul, from al-Anbar to Kandahar. We'd like to pretend it's a change of strategy, but fundamentally it's the same idea: hoping for success, hoping the easy way out will work. This way neither Canada nor the other NATO allies need to, say, raise taxes or dramatically increase their own military spending, while we let the two biggest military powers in the alliance shoulder a burden we're not even sure is worthwhile anymore.

Frankly, unless Canada, France, Germany and the rest of NATO start ponying up some more money and some more bodies, I'm not sure it's terribly ethical for us to ask the Americans to do so on our behalf, especially when there's no national consensus in Canada on the value of the mission. To ask Americans and British to die because, you know, whatever, is in fact profoundly wrong.

Question: If Afghanistan can muster a force of 70,000, why can't Canada, with a GDP fifty times greater? Other NATO allies can and have been criticized, but we in this country seem to have this idea that Canada is undertaking a uniquely Herculean task. But obviously, if we were committed to this war the way we're committed to the rhetoric of war, we could do very much more. This idea seems to be beyond polite discussion - our own Defense Minister seems to think it's only other countries who need to man up at this point. My support for the Afghanistan mission is waning on a daily basis - has nearly entirely disappeared, in fact - but surely we can all agree that to fight this war badly, spending men and women's lives to no purpose, is worse than to not fight it at all?

But fighting this war properly - with the level of national commitment that would have required - might have necessitated tough decisions for the Liberals while they were in power, and would definitely require tough decisions for the Conservatives today (like sacrificing those precious tax cuts, or facing the wrath of a disenchanted public) so I don't think it's going to happen at all. We're going to waste dozens, a hundred, or maybe (God please no) hundreds of more lives, until the situation goes from unsustainable to total disaster.


Anonymous said...

You make some very good points.

Just a small correction. Karzai is not guarded by Afghan soldiers. At first, he was guarded by US special forces, but that was eventually privatized. He is now protected by DynCorp mercenaries.,,846595,00.html

Craig Horizon said...

I agree with what you said. There seems to be this hope - having collectively waged the Afghanistan war on the cheap for the last five years - that we can now salvage it with a quick transfusion of labour from Baghdad to Kabul, from al-Anbar to Kandahar. Trying to save money might not be the correct thing to do at this time

auntiegrav said...

The first mistaken premise is that Afghanistan is actually a country, with structure, common culture, and all that. Like Iraq, it is a tribal frontier (or group of frontiers) which no other country has been able to find enough commonality in order to assimilate it. Even civilization (city-based society) has shunned this rugged map. The best thing to do is to take the troops we have there and train them how to build windmills. Then we can forget about the goddamned pipeline and leave that place to it's own freedom, rather than imposing our version of Incorporated Free Dumbness on them so we can get Russia's oil transferred to China and make a few bucks for Halliburton or ABB or whoever the fuck is pushing us into that hell hole.
P.S. Of course Karzai is guarded by Dyncorp: How else would he get laid?

Olaf said...


Very persuasive, and although I support the mission in theory, I think there has to be a massive contribution of troops and reconstruction/development resources.

But obviously, if we were committed to this war the way we're committed to the rhetoric of war, we could do very much more.

I agree completely with this. That's the problem. I think that a minimum level of security can be established, but not with the current level of forces. I also think that reconstruction and development can take place, thus providing the foundation for a stable society, however not at the current level of resources.

What should Canada do? Should it pull its troops out, saying "there is simply not enough resources/troops dedicated by NATO as a whole to meet our objectives", thus providing a pretext for other NATO countries to leave and an abandonment of Afghanistan altogether to the Taliban?

Or should it contribute vastly more resources in an attempt to "lead" and "set an example" by our dedication, even if the mission may fail anyways because other NATO countries will piggyback as much as they can?

Seriously, I want an answer...

auntiegrav said...

I think the answer to your question is that the leadership-competence vacuum must be filled. The diplomats should be showing leadership by presenting just such a conundrum to the UN, and saying that if the UN doesn't provide enough troops, Canada will pull out, and that Canada would be willing to provide its share in the proper scenario. We all like to think we are willing to do what is right and good, but in the long run, the species that survives is the one that survives in the long run. If Canada can look at the direction of the human race and finds that a better Net Creativity is created by helping the Afghanis, then there is a certain level of risk that must be taken. If the direction of the rest of the world is to end up destroying each other, then a higher Net Creative result may be had by adopting Isolationism and Sustainability with minimal wealth creation in order to minimize competitive takeovers.