The Situation in Afghanistan
Senator John McCain on How to Win the War

More than three years ago, I spoke at AEI about the war in Iraq.At that time, conditions on the ground were going from bad to worse.Violence had accelerated out of control, al Qaeda had firmly entrencheditself in Anbar province, and Iranian-backed Shia militias had takencontrol of large swaths of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The Iraqigovernment and its security forces appeared hopelessly corrupt,sectarian, ineffective, and unable to break the cycle of reciprocalviolence fueled by Sunni and Shiite extremists. The Bush administrationcontinued to pursue a failed war strategy--despite mounting evidence ofits catastrophic consequences.

More and more Americans, members of Congress and opinion leaderswondered whether the war in Iraq could ever be won, or whether it wasalready lost.

Nearly every indicator in Afghanistan is heading in the wrong direction.

It seemed obvious to me that failure in Iraq would be a calamity,and to prevent it we would have to accept the urgent necessity of a newstrategy--a strategy based on the fundamental principles ofcounterinsurgency, the imperative to secure the civilian population,and a significant increase in the number of American troops. Yet morethan a year passed, as the deteriorating situation in Iraq approachedthe point of no return and a substantial majority of Americans turnedfirmly against the war, before President Bush at last shifted course,dismissed Secretary Rumsfeld, and adopted such a strategy.

Thanks to the courage and skill of our troops on the ground and thewisdom of leaders such as General David Petraeus, Ambassador RyanCrocker, and General Ray Odierno, the collapse of the American effortin Iraq was not just arrested but reversed. With the right strategyfinally in place--and I should note the intellectual contributions toit by General Jack Keane, Fred and Kim Kagan, Andrew Krepinevich, andGary Schmitt--and the resources on the ground necessary to implementit, we not only stepped back from the precipice of a strategic disasterof immense and long lasting consequences, but progressed towardobtaining our objectives in Iraq beyond the most hopeful projectionsfor the new strategy’s success.

We now face a similar moment with respect to the war in Afghanistan.The situation in Afghanistan is nowhere near as dire as it was in Iraqjust two years ago--to cite one example, civilian fatalities at theirpeak in Iraq were ten times higher than civilian deaths at their peakin Afghanistan last year. But the same truth that was apparent threeyears ago in Iraq is apparent today in Afghanistan: when you aren’twinning in this kind of war, you are losing. And, in Afghanistan today,we are not winning. Let us not shy from the truth, but let us not beparalyzed by it either.

Nearly every indicator in Afghanistan is heading in the wrongdirection. Civilian fatalities in Afghanistan have increaseddramatically as security has deteriorated, particularly in the southernprovinces of the country. The number of insurgent attacks was higherevery single week in 2008 than during the same week in 2007. Since2005, violence has increased over 500 percent, and despite the presenceof tens of thousands of coalition troops, growing portions of thecountry suffer under the influence of the Taliban. The percentage ofAfghans rating their security positively has declined from 77 percentin 2005 to 40 percent today. Only a third of Afghans say that U.S. orNATO forces have a strong presence in their areas, down from 57 percentjust two years ago, and Afghans cite the lack of security andcorruption as the foremost reasons their country is moving in the wrongdirection.

In the face of these daunting statistics, many Americans have begunto wonder whether it is truly possible to turn this war around. Publiccommentary increasingly focuses on past failures in Afghanistan by theSoviets and British, and warns that the country has earned the label"graveyard of empires." Some suggest it is time to scale back ourambitions in Afghanistan--to give up on nation-building and insteadfocus narrowly on our counterterrorism objectives, by simply mountingoperations aimed at killing or capturing terrorist leaders anddestroying their networks, while leaving the broader tasks of buildingfundamental security, governance, and development to someone else--orabandoning them altogether.

I disagree. I am confident victory is possible in Afghanistan. Iknow Americans are weary of war. I’m weary of it. But we must win thewar in Afghanistan. The alternative is to risk that country’s return toits previous function as a terrorist sanctuary, from which al Qaedacould train and plan attacks against America. Such an outcome wouldconstitute an historic success for the jihadist movement, severelydamage American standing and credibility in a region that alreadydoubts our resolve, and threaten the future of the North AtlanticTreaty Organization. A terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan wouldencourage and enable al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to destabilizeneighboring countries. Broader insecurity in Afghanistan--with theviolence, refugee flows, and lawlessness it would engender--could spillbeyond its borders to nuclear armed Pakistan or other states in southand central Asia, with the gravest implications for our nationalsecurity.

Success is possible in Afghanistan.

A terrorist sanctuary inAfghanistan would encourage and enable al Qaeda and other terroristgroups to destabilize neighboring countries.

Afghans reject the Taliban. Just 4 percent of Afghans wish them torule the country, and they rate the Taliban as by far the mostdangerous threat to their nation. Despite the deteriorating conditions,nearly 70 percent continue to say the U.S. invasion and overthrow ofthe Taliban were a good thing. What the people in Afghanistan want mostis not the exit of foreigners, or of coalition troops, but rather thethings that a properly configured and resourced strategy would deliver:security, some degree of development, and basic good governance.

The problem in Afghanistan today is not innate xenophobia orhostility to the West. It is our own failed policies that are theproblem. We have tried to win this war without enough troops, withoutsufficient economic aid, without effective coordination, and without aclear strategy. The ruinous consequences should come as no surprise. Ifwe change our policies, the situation on the ground will change, too.

I say this with some confidence because we have been through thisbefore. I refer not to Iraq, but to Afghanistan itself. For a brief butcritical window between late 2003 and early 2005, we were moving on theright path in Afghanistan. Under Ambassador Khalilzad and Lt. Gen.David Barno, the United States completely overhauled its strategy forAfghanistan. We increased the number of American forces in the country,expanded non-military assistance to the Afghan government and--mostimportantly--abandoned a counterterrorism-based strategy thatemphasized seeking out and attacking the enemy, in favor of one thatemphasized counterinsurgency and the protection of the population. Allof this was overseen by an integrated civil-military command structure,in which the Ambassador and the coalition commander worked in the samebuilding, from adjoining offices.

The result was that, by late 2004, governance and reconstructionwere improving and long-delayed projects, like the ring road thatconnects major Afghan cities, were at last getting off the ground.

Entrenched warlords were being nudged out of power. Militias likethe Northern Alliance were being peacefully disarmed of their heavyweapons, and national elections were conducted successfully and safely.The Taliban showed signs of internal dissention and splintering.

Rather than building on these gains, however, we squandered them.Beginning in 2005, our integrated civil-military command structure wasdisassembled and replaced by a balkanized and dysfunctionalarrangement. The integrated counterinsurgency strategy was replaced bya patchwork of different strategies, depending on the location and onwhich country’s troops were doing the fighting. And at a moment whenmany in Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to nurse doubts aboutAmerica’s commitment in South Asia, the Pentagon announced itsintention to withdraw 2,500 American combat troops from the theatre.

These decisions laid the groundwork for the situation we see inAfghanistan today. They also underscore why "lowering our goals"--bothrhetorically and in practice--is precisely the wrong move today.

"We went into Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda, not to build a model state in the Hindu Kush."

Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has rightly warned againstthinking that we can forgo the intensive work necessary to solidifysecurity, development, and governance in favor of a narrower focus on"counterterrorism." The seductive appeal of such an approach isobvious. "After all," Dr. Kilcullen has written, "we might say we wentinto Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda, not to build a model state in theHindu Kush." Yet, as Dr. Kilcullen warns, this narrow counterterrorismapproach carries a fatal flaw: namely, it will not work. As we havelearned, most painfully in Iraq but in other fragile states as well,effective counterterrorism operations rely, among other elements, onaccurate intelligence provided by the local population, which has noincentive to cooperate in the absence of sustained security or thepromise of a better life.

In Iraq prior to the surge, for instance, U.S. Special Forces hadcomplete freedom of action to strike at terrorist leaders, backed bymore than 120,000 conventional American forces and overwhelmingairpower.

Although we succeeded in killing numerous terrorist leaders throughthis approach--including the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab alZarqawi, the insurgency continued to grow in strength and violence. Itwas not until we changed course and applied a new approach--acounterinsurgency strategy focused on providing basic security for thepopulation--that the cycle of violence was broken and al Qaeda wasseriously damaged.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, if we focus on counterterrorism to theexclusion of counterinsurgency, we will only ensure that wesuccessfully execute neither. Simply put, we cannot achieve ourcounterterrorism goals in Afghanistan without counterinsurgency, and wecannot achieve our counterinsurgency goals without development and goodgovernance.

Let us make no mistake: we will fail in Afghanistan without a serious change in both strategy and resources.

As General Petraeus put it in a recent speech at the Munich SecurityConference, "We have a hugely important interest in ensuring thatAfghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for trans-nationalterrorists. Achieving that core objective, in turn, requires theaccomplishment of several other significant tasks," namely, theapplication of counterinsurgency principles by increased numbers ofU.S. troops.

Let us make no mistake: we will fail in Afghanistan without aserious change in both strategy and resources. I welcomed thePresident's decision last week to deploy some 17,000 additional troopsto Afghanistan, given the dire state of affairs there. I believe theadditional force levels can make a significant difference, but moretroops alone cannot lead to success. A major change in course is longoverdue. The new approach we need in Afghanistan should consist ofseveral elements--several of which are, in fact, precisely thoseelements we had in place just a few years ago.

Reapply the principles of counterinsurgency. As it was in Iraq,security is the precondition for political and economic progress inAfghanistan. And the way to provide enduring security is by applyingthe same basic principles of counterinsurgency tailored for the uniquecircumstances of Afghanistan, backed with robust intelligence resourcesand a sufficient number of troops to carry it out.

This strategy should be operationalized through a nationwidecivil-military campaign plan. There is today a campaign plan forRegional Command-East, one in the works for Regional Command-South, anda patchwork of other operations throughout the country. There is nocomprehensive, nationwide plan for the war that spells out what levelof combat troops and resources will be required, where, and to do what.The fact that we are engaged in this fight without such a plan morethan seven years after our initial invasion explains much of thefailure of our efforts thus far.

In order to carry out the necessary planning and coordination for anationwide counterinsurgency campaign, we should establish a militaryheadquarters that is adequately staffed and resourced, similar to thatof General Odierno when he served under General Petraeus in Baghdad. Inaddition, the senior coalition commander and the senior internationalcivilian in Afghanistan must better coordinate efforts by the variousinternational agencies and nongovernmental organizations, ideallythrough a body in Kabul that can routinely synchronize these effortswith military operations and Afghan government activities. And as wedeploy more troops to carry out new operations, we must focus quicklyon securing supply lines into Afghanistan--a task made more urgent withthe recent loss of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Help the Afghans surge.

Everyone knows the United States increased the number of itssoldiers in Iraq during 2007. What is less well known is that theIraqis surged with us, adding over 100,000 security forces to theirranks. It is now time for the Afghans to do the same. The Afghan armyis already a great success story: a multiethnic, battle-tested fightingforce. The problem is that it is too small--it currently stands at68,000--and, even with the increase in projected end strength to134,000, it will remain too small. For years, the Afghans have beentelling us they need a bigger army, and they are right. After all,their country is more populous and significantly larger than Iraq. At aminimum, we need to more than double the current size of the Afghanarmy to 160,000 troops, and consider enlarging it to 200,000.

The costs of this increase, however, should not be borne by Americantaxpayers alone. Insecurity in Afghanistan is the world's problem, andthe world should share the costs. I believe we should work with ourallies to establish an international trust fund to provide long-termfinancing for the Afghan army. At the same time, we need to increasethe number of trainers and mentors assisting the Afghan police, whohave suffered neglect and mismanagement for too long.

Change alliance diplomacy.

Our diplomacy with NATO allies has led to frustration on both sidesof the Atlantic in recent years. The U.S. has increased the number oftroops it contributes to the fight, asked the allies to match ourefforts, and grown frustrated with some allies' refusal to do so. InEurope, our allies complain their contributions have goneunappreciated, and that haranguing from Washington only makes the warless popular at home. While I believe the United States should continueto encourage European troop contributions and press for the reductionof caveats on their use, I also believe we should move away fromstressing what Washington wants Europe to give, and more towardencouraging what Europe is prepared to contribute. Many of our NATOallies--and other allies and partners outside NATO, including countriesin Asia and the Gulf--are fully capable of contributing many badlyneeded resources. In many areas, non-combat related contributions--frompolice training to a trust fund for the Afghan National Army--will beas critical to long-term success as more European troops on the ground.

Increase and reform non-military assistance.

Our diplomacy with NATO allies has led to frustration on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years.

We also must increase our non-military assistance to the Afghangovernment, with a multi-front plan--something akin to a "PlanAfghanistan"--for strengthening its institutions, the rule of law, andthe economy in order to provide a sustainable alternative to the drugtrade. International partners, whom have grown enamored of usingnongovernmental organizations to deliver services at the local level,have inadvertently eroded government authority. By empowering thegovernment at local levels, we can help it extend its authoritythroughout the country.

In order to empower the government, however, we must work to reducecorruption and improve its delivery of services. We can start byagreeing with the government in Kabul on specific governance anddevelopment benchmarks, then working closely with its leaders to ensurethey are met. Throughout this process, we should not be timid aboutpushing the government to crack down on corruption, no matter the levelat which it is present, or in using our leverage to reduce the toxicinfluence of corruption on Afghan society.

Get control of the narcotics problem.

Taking control of the narcotics problem is central to our efforts inAfghanistan. At last year’s Bucharest summit, the NATO allies agreedthat narcotics trafficking was fuelling the insurgency, but failed toreach consensus on how to combat this problem. Increased security willhelp enormously--we have already seen poppy growers relocate theircrops from newly secure areas to less secure ones in the south.

As we bring greater security to poppy growing areas and crack downon illegal narcotics activity there, we should increase our efforts tohelp Afghans get alternative crops to market and prosecute traffickersby Special Courts. And both the United States and Europe should provideassistance to expand the capacity of Afghan farmers to meetinternational export standards, in order to help boost the agriculturalsector of the economy.

Work regionally.

Afghanistan's problems exist, of course, in a regional context, andwe must increasingly view them as such. The appointment of a newspecial U.S. envoy is a step in the right direction, and his goalshould be to turn Afghanistan from a theater for regional rivalriesinto a commons for regional cooperation.

A special focus of our regional strategy must be Pakistan. For toolong we have viewed Pakistan as important because of our goals inAfghanistan. Yet Pakistan is not simply important because ofAfghanistan; Pakistan is important because of Pakistan. We cannotsimply subordinate our Pakistan strategy to our Afghanistan policy.

We should start by empowering the new civilian government inIslamabad to defeat radicalism with greater support for development,health, and education. Today, development assistance constitutes justone percent of all U.S. funding directed toward programs in the tribaland border areas. This must change. We should also strengthen localtribes in these areas who are willing to fight terrorists--the strategyused successfully in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq--while recognizingthat such an approach will not be nearly as quick or far reaching as itwas in Iraq. We should strengthen the army and the Frontier Corps'counterinsurgency capacity, and do all we can to stiffen the will ofour Pakistani partners to fight the war they face at home. Finally, weshould make clear to all in the region, through both word and deed,that the United States and the international community are committed tosuccess in the long run.

Communicate the stakes and the challenges to the American people.Above all, leaders in Europe and America must be clear with theirpublics about the nature of the effort in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq,where the surge of troops conducting counterinsurgency operations,combined with a quickly spreading Anbar Awakening, transformed thecountry in less than a year, Afghanistan is likely to be harder andlonger. The violence is likely to get worse before it gets better. Thescale of resources required to prevail will be enormous, and thetimetable will be measured in years, not months. The American peopleshould understand the nature of this protracted conflict, and theirleaders must spell out--on a continual basis--how this war isdeveloping, why patience is in order, and why progress and eventualsuccess is vital, despite inevitable setbacks and disappointments.

We need to take all of the steps I have outlined mindful of the unique burdens we have put on our fighting men and women.

Communicate the stakes and the challenges to the American people.

The surge in Iraq placed great strains on our forces, and we mustavoid drawing down troop levels there too quickly or risk jeopardizingthe hard-won security gains. The reinforcements we send to Afghanistanwill similarly stretch our ground forces. All who advocate such a moveare, I believe, obliged not to allow the U.S. military to becomehollowed out, but rather to stand behind it by bearing the full priceof our nation's conflicts. This means insisting on a further increasein the total size of U.S. ground forces, accelerating the reset oftheir equipment, and committing to the modernization they need anddeserve.

None of this will be easy. While today Afghanistan is seen by manyas "the good war" and the one into which the dispatch of thousands ofadditional American troops can go mostly uncontested, this day may soonpass. It is possible--indeed likely--that sometime in the near future,perhaps a year from now, as the fighting in Afghanistan increases, thecosts grow more dear, and casualties become more numerous and morevisible, that the will to finish this mission will dramatically erode.

Yet we cannot afford a crisis ofconfidence. Should the day Idescribed arrive, let us remember the national will we mustered in thewake of the 9/11 attacks, when we resolved not to permit such aterrible act to ever again occur, and never again to abandonAfghanistan to the terrorists that plot our destruction. As Americans,we must accept the responsibilities history has assigned us and ourinterests require. We must do the hard work, as we always have, ofbuilding a stable and prosperous world order, in which ever increasingnumbers of human beings can flourish in peace, security andopportunity. We have achieved great things in the past; we will achievegreater things still, but only if we keep our faith in and accept theburden of being indispensable to the global success of our sharedvalues and interests, and the progress of humanity.

This war will take time and commitment, and it will not be easy. Butas it has so often before, history--and the world--will look to Americafor courage and resolve.

Thank you

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