Ends, Ways, and Means—the Debate We Still Need on Afghanistan


Dec 9, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on RAND.org on December 9, 2009.

When President Obama explained his decision to send 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan to support General Stanley McChrystal's new counterinsurgency campaign, he left a key question unanswered: Will this be enough to achieve U.S. strategic ends in Afghanistan?

Most of the discussion about McChrystal's strategy focused on whether counterinsurgency (protecting the population) or counterterrorism (isolating and killing terrorists) is the best approach for Afghanistan. Both of these approaches seek to prevent Afghanistan from becoming the terrorist sanctuary it was before 9/11. But can McChrystal's plan succeed now that he is getting most of the 40,000 troops he asked for?

"Ways" and "means" matter. In the case of McChrystal's plan, the way is counterinsurgency and the increased means are largely limited to U.S. military forces, volunteers from other U.S. agencies, and contractors and perhaps some level of contribution from our allies. The unchallenged assumption in McChrystal's plan is that a counterinsurgency strategy can succeed now that he is getting most of the troops he asked for. This raises two issues.

First, consider the means that are available. As McChrystal's assessment points out, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) "is a conventional force that is poorly configured for counterinsurgency, inexperienced in local languages and culture, and struggling with challenges inherent to coalition warfare." This characterization is correct.

Unfortunately, ISAF's strengths and deficiencies are due to the fundamental nature of a conventional force and a coalition of 42 nations. ISAF is what it is, making General McChrystal's plan to "interact more closely with the population and focus on operations that bring stability, while shielding them from insurgent violence, corruption, and coercion" problematic.

Second, consider how many troops McChrystal actually would need to succeed at his stated plan. Again, in the coming months McChrystal will receive 30,000 U.S. troops and some number from our allies, which will approach the 40,000 total that the general deemed the "minimum necessary."

However, U.S. military counterinsurgency doctrine calls for a security force ratio of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents for success. Afghanistan's population of 28.4 million means the combined ISAF and Afghan security forces would need to number between 568,000 and 710,000.

The Afghans now have approximately 170,000 national police and army forces and the United States and ISAF have 107,000 troops. Adding 40,000 U.S. and alliance troops will bring the total to 317,000—nowhere near the Army's own doctrinal guidelines.

Therefore, the success of the campaign will be highly contingent on an Afghan security force that is far larger than its current size—McChrystal wants 400,000—and much more capable and reliable. Given the state of the Afghan government, the near-term likelihood of a markedly greater contribution from these forces is remote at best.

So, why are we sending only 30,000 U.S. troops? A reasonable conclusion is that this number is driven not by an assessment of the means necessary to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan, but rather by the forces the United States has available. Quite simply, the Army and the Marine Corps—the source for the majority of the troops in the various options to reinforce Afghanistan—are already stretched very thin supporting Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the means to realize the U.S. strategy are being limited by the forces that are available, not how many forces are needed to do the job.

The American people need to understand that the forces General McChrystal is receiving will probably not be enough for his proposed counterinsurgency strategy to succeed. Consequently, the United States might be destined for more years of stalemate, if not failure, in Afghanistan if this fundamental disconnect between ends, ways, and means is not addressed as we move forward.

Colonel David E. Johnson, Ph.D. (U.S. Army, Retired) is a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis. He is the author of Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 and Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era.

This op-ed also appeared on Globalsecurity.org.

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