McChrystal's Fuzzy Math

Amid reports that President Obama has settled on 30,000 troops for his Afghan surge, Leslie H. Gelb crunches.

11.08.09 10:51 PM ET

The U.S. military brass has a lot of public explaining to do on its Afghan recommendations before President Barack Obama makes his new decisions. Our military leaders went public with their case to increase U.S. troops by 44,000 or face defeat. They put Obama on the political hot seat (though I have to say he deserved it). He had to answer all the questions. The military got a free ride from America’s pretend leaders and fake journalists. True to form, the pretenders and fakers fixated simply and almost solely on troop numbers. Typically, they failed to grill the military on whether their numbers (or any numbers, for that matter) squared with realities on the ground or with the military’s own proposed strategy. Now, our public guardians in Congress and the media have to step up and examine whether the numbers and strategy from NATO and the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, make sense. If the military’s responses are weak, it’s time for Washington to turn the war over to friendly Afghans and adopt a supporting role. If the military makes its case well, Obama should accommodate their recommendations and go forward with a more united America.

Senior military officers I’ve spoken with predict 16 to 18 months at best [to get new troops on the ground in Afghanistan]. McChrystal knows these delays very well, so why is he asking for what he realizes he can’t get—and predicting mission failure if he doesn’t get them?

There is now time for this searching public review. Obama’s decision has been pushed back yet another two weeks. His timing was thrown off course by the political turmoil surrounding the recent Afghan election. There was no mistaking the corruption and illegitimacy of President Hamid Karzai’s regime. There was no way of avoiding the question of why Americans or Afghans should die for such a government. This delay took Obama to the doorstep of his 10-day Asia trip, which ends on November 19. He couldn't announce his decision (which he may have already made at the request of McChrystal) and run off to Asia. He had to stay in town to defend his position. Thus, we have two more weeks to wait, and fortuitously, time for a serious public airing of the military’s thinking.

In the last day or so, the White House and the military have begun putting out the word to the media that the president and his key advisors are close to agreement on a 30,000 troop increase for the next year—leaving the door open for further increases the following year. The military seems inclined to go along with the 30,000 number, mainly because they know they couldn't get more than that number into Afghanistan within a year. General McChrystal has also asked the president to at least make the decision on troop count before he leaves for Asia—so that the long and cumbersome process of getting the troops ready can begin.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Obama wound up approving McChrystal’s preferred number of 40,000. Could the troops arrive and be ready for action in Afghanistan in time to prevent the defeat predicted by the general? Here is McChrystal’s argument in his own words: "Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months)—while Afghan security capacity matures—risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible. … Failure to provide adequate resources also risks a longer conflict, greater casualties, higher overall costs, and ultimately, a critical loss of political support. Any of these risks, in turn, are likely to result in mission failure."

Haroun Mir: The Only Way to Avoid Chaos in AfghanistanThe key for McChrystal is getting the 44,000 troops in battle within the next 12 months. But that just can’t be done. The most optimistic assessment comes from Kimberly Kagan of the ever-optimistic, fighting Kagans (the others being Bob and Fred). According to The Wall Street Journal, her recent study for the Institute for the Study of War assessed that “it would be difficult to move enough troops from other posts to deploy anywhere close to 40,000 troops before next summer at the earliest."  U.S. armed forces are so thinned out and ill-prepared from having to fight two wars and stay ready for a slew of other conflicts that it is indeed “difficult,” if not outright impossible, to deploy the requested troops in time to head off McChrystal’s mission failure. And don’t forget the nightmarish delays caused by the military’s nightmarish bureaucracy. Senior military officers I’ve spoken with predict 16 to 18 months at best. McChrystal knows these delays very well, so why is he asking for what he realizes he can’t get —and predicting mission failure if he doesn’t get them?

Which leads to the second question: How valid is the 44,000 figure to begin with? McChrystal argues that when that number is added to the almost 70,000 U.S. and over 30,000 NATO and other troops already there, we will be able to protect all or most of the major Afghan cities and towns. But what forces will remain to guard the vast countryside that lies between these highly populated zones? And how will the protected people be supplied and fed? The 44,000 increase doesn’t sound at all adequate to pacify the major metropolitan areas already highly infiltrated by the Taliban. Is it then merely a holding request, soon to be followed by yet another McChrystal ask for yet another 40,000 troops next year? He certainly doesn’t expect NATO to fill the gap. And while he speaks of many more Afghan forces to do the job, his numbers don’t add up here either, which leads to more questions about the McChrystal plan.

He knows he doesn’t have and won’t have enough boots on the ground to fulfill his counterinsurgency strategy, so he says he will double the number of Afghan police to 160,000 and double Afghan armed forces to about 240,000 (reaching 134,000 in as little as a year). Frankly, that’s impossible. One big hurdle is that the yearly attrition rate for both security groups hovers near 25 percent. That means the entire security force has to be replaced within four years. Besides and equally important, a good portion of these forces are corrupt, illiterate, and backward. Read last Friday’s New York Times about how Afghan troops pull the sinks out of their barracks to wash their feet before prayers and maintain grenade launchers with hammers and nails. It will take several years for training to improve this situation, which was totally and irresponsibly neglected by the Bush team and which Obama is now only starting to correct. Where are McChrystal’s proposals for making this the top practical priority? And what about ideas for arming and training local and regional groups that aren’t a part of the lumbering national machinery? The ultimate question here remains: With force levels well below what he says he must have, how will he carry out his counterinsurgency strategy?

Which brings us to the counterinsurgency strategy itself. Mind you, Obama fully endorsed that strategy in March and subsequently, and the military had every reason to believe he still stood behind it—until he said, in effect, “April Fools” and started his overall review almost six weeks ago. This strategy, as McChrystal and other military leaders forever stress, is part security-building and part nation-building; both are essential. It’s also fair to say that our military has a better shot at providing reasonable security than they—along with our civilians—have of transforming Afghanistan politically and economically. We can’t even fix our public schools or do a decent job of disaster relief in New Orleans. So, how does McChrystal—and Obama himself, for that matter—think we can fix worse problems and make a “stable” society in a place rendered uninhabitable by decades of war and cruelty? At miraculous best, it would take a decade. And what does the administration even mean by “stable?” And how much will stability cost to achieve in dollars and lives? And be optimistic and say we gather most of our available worldwide intelligence, civilian and military resources, and say we actually produce stability there in five more magical years. What then happens to retaining America’s capability to combat al Qaeda and other terrorist threats from dozens of other countries? If our leaders don’t get convincing answers to these questions now, I guarantee you one thing: We will have to ask them next year and the year after that.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.