Tom Cotton is a Harvard Law School graduate who served as a law clerk to a federal appellate judge and worked at two Washington law firms before joining the Army to become an infantry officer leading troops in combat. Tom was on active duty from 2005 to 2009, serving tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Since he completed his active duty earlier this year I’ve been asking Tom if he would write something for our readers on the current issues confronting the United States in Afghanistan. Tom writes:
When General Stan McChrystal took command in Afghanistan in June, I was concluding a 9-month deployment in eastern Afghanistan as the operations officer for a provincial reconstruction team. At that time, he began a months-long strategy review that concluded last month with a request for 40,000 additional troops. We urgently need all these troops to win in Afghanistan and to protect our troops there now. Further, the time has come for President Obama to end the lengthy public debate and approve General McChrystal’s request.
Today, we lack the troops in Afghanistan to accomplish a core task in a counterinsurgency fight, namely, winning the population’s support and cooperation. My experience in our province is representative. Our province was approximately the size of Rhode Island and had nearly 400,000 Afghans. Yet, we had fewer than 800 troops there, many of whom played support roles on three separate bases, further reducing our effective combat power.
As a result, we could not maintain a constant patrolling presence, nor could we routinely operate with and mentor the Afghan army and police. The population thus was exposed to Taliban intimidation and violence and remained wary of the coalition. While our team improved the infrastructure and economic opportunities, the security situation remained precarious and has since deteriorated.
Though not as bleak, this situation resembles Baghdad in 2006, where I served as an infantry platoon leader. Before the surge, junior officers plainly saw the need to adopt a population-based counterinsurgency approach, but our units couldn’t effectively do so because we lacked the troops. After the surge, American forces finally had enough troops to gradually win support for themselves and the Iraqi government from the people by living among them, providing security, and gaining their trust and cooperation.
With more troops, we can recreate this dynamic in Afghanistan. Few Afghans support the Taliban, al Qaeda, or affiliated terrorist networks, having suffered under them in the 1990s. By contrast, most Afghans whom I encountered appreciated and supported coalition forces, though they remained skeptical about our commitment to their future. And while they viewed the Afghan government as inefficient or corrupt, a counterinsurgency always must work with a weak or unpopular government–otherwise, the insurgency wouldn’t have a foothold among the people.
General McChrystal aims to exploit these favorable conditions, as in Iraq, with new troops living among and protecting the population and partnering at every level with the Afghan army and police, the surest way to improve their skills, professionalism, and public image. This will turn the tide against the insurgency and provide the government with opportunity to tackle corruption, improve delivery of basic services, and generally win popular support itself, the ultimate goal of a counterinsurgency.
But additional troops will not only enable a successful counterinsurgency strategy; they will also reduce casualties and improve safety for all our troops. This may seem counterintuitive as casualties have increased in Afghanistan after 21,000 more troops arrived earlier this year. Yet our experience in Iraq bears out its truth. Casualties spiked early during the surge as the new troops conducted aggressive offensive operations, but then fell rapidly and remain at very low levels.
This trend results from popular support and cooperation in disrupting and ultimately defeating insurgents. For instance, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are the number-one cause of American deaths in both countries. Without popular support, our troops must spot IEDs or simply trust their armor. Both are losing propositions. With many months of experience, I’ve still had well-concealed IEDs explode just a few feet from me. Likewise, our vehicles have cutting-edge armor, but some IEDs are still strong enough to penetrate it. The only full-proof technique is to “get left of boom” by obtaining actionable intelligence about IEDs and networks from locals who trust and support coalition forces. By protecting the people, we also protect ourselves.
While we need more troops for both these reasons, it isn’t enough for President Obama to approve General McChrystal’s request. We need him to approve that request now for three separate reasons.
First, the deployment process must begin imminently for the troops to be ready to fight in the spring. Scant attention has been paid to the logistical difficulty of deploying men and material to Afghanistan. In Iraq, the surge brigades took five months to deploy despite Iraq having a major port and huge airbases with favorable year-round weather. Afghanistan is landlocked and rugged with brutal winters that routinely delay fixed-wing flights into its few airbases.
Helicopters, which move troops and equipment to their final bases, are even more susceptible to extreme weather and altitude. And ground movement isn’t a practicable alternative because of long distances, security risks, and unimproved roads that become impassable during winter, especially by the antiquated cargo trucks favored by Afghan drivers. Because of these challenges, the president needs to issue the deployment order now.
Second, further delay will only further complicate the mission of both new and currently deployed troops. The administration’s public deliberation emboldens our enemies and dispirits our allies at the tactical level. Afghans may be poor and isolated, but they have internet-capable cell phones and radios and they follow the news. To my surprise, for instance, Afghans in remote villages asked my thoughts about President-elect Obama the day after last year’s election. These Afghans–friend and foe–are surely following this protracted debate and questioning America’s resolve and commitment to their future.
Finally, the long and continuing delay has injected needless uncertainty into the lives of our troops and their families. No soldier signs up today without expecting to deploy, and many are eager to do so. Still, they deserve as much predictability as military contingencies permit. Troops on notice to deploy not only must train intensively, but also order their personal affairs and prepare their families for separation. While they can take preliminary measures now, they cannot address many issues or gain peace of mind without the final order. We owe these troops this certainty, especially as the holidays approach. They are ready to fight for us; the least we can do is send them to the fight in an orderly fashion with reasonable notice.
Tom has asked me to conclude this post with the disclaimer that the views expressed here are solely his own (though I’m pretty sure the contributors to this site would defer to Tom).