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Go Big or Go Deep

An Analysis of Strategy Options on Afghanistan

14 October 2009
By LTC Daniel L. Davis, US Army

Table of Contents

Section Page No.
Introduction 4
Executive Summary 6
Go Big Analyzed 7
Foreign Invaders” 7
Is 40,000 Enough? 8
Trust and Hope 10
Unintended Consequences: Redeployment from 11

Iraq & the Logistics Logjam
Enemy Actions and Strategy 12
Trust and Hope II 12
Governmental Corruption 13
Growing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF): 14
Go Deep: Setting the Conditions 16
Aggressive Intelligence-driven Operations 16
What the 9/11 Commission Report Didn’t Say 17
“Jeff” and “Mike” with bin Laden in the Crosshairs 17
Multiple Agencies, No Crosstalk 18
Political Circumstances and Conditions 19
What We Should (and are mostly already organized to) Do: Going Deep 20
Jack Bauer 20
Going Deep in Afghanistan 21

ANSF and the Redeployment of US Conventional Forces 23
Reconciliation 26

The Pakistan Factor 26
Economic Development 28
Education 29
Government 29
Risk 30
Go Big Risk 30
COIN v. CT 30
Government 31
American Control of Terrain: boon to Taliban? 31
Troop Exhaustion 32
Looking for the Lost Quarter: Increased Global Freedom 33

of Maneuver for Terrorists

Go Deep Risk 34
Taliban Control of Terrain: boon to al Qaeda? 34
Defeat the Taliban? 35
Government 36
Conclusion 36
Epilogue: Surging Misconceptions 37

As this report is being written, there rages in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington and in various Army headquarters around the world an intense debate over what course the United States should pursue in regards to Afghanistan. The consequences of this debate will have ramifications for our country lasting decades; the cost of failing in Afghanistan is unknown but could be severe.
The debate has generally coalesced around two camps, one advocating a “Go Big” strategy involving an aggressive and fully resourced counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign and the other primary recommends a counterterrorist (CT) focus with a lighter footprint. Both have ardent and passionate defenders who claim that failing to follow their prescription will result in strategic catastrophe; neither argument is so obviously right that the President has an easy choice. This report proposes something of a hybrid alternative called “Go Deep” which eschews the so-called “minimalist” option as being too light to accomplish the President’s stated national security objectives and rejects the “maximalist” approach as being so big and intrusive that it would actually work against our intent.
These recommendations are based on my personal experience and observations in Afghanistan, on my own combat experience over a 20 year Army career, interviews with numerous people who have lived in or fought in Afghanistan, and significant research into the history of Afghanistan as well as a study of contemporary events.
This report does not claim that to follow the Go Big plan would unquestionably result in disaster because history is full of situations where superior leadership and execution rescued even flawed policy. Neither does it claim that if the President were to adopt this course of action we would definitely prevail; history is also replete with examples of otherwise solid plans failing. But it does claim that, for reasons provided throughout, Go Deep offers the best chance of success between the options currently being considered.
Many believe that assuring Go Big success is primarily a matter of deciding whether we are willing to spend the billions of dollars, suffer the casualties necessary, and invest the years most concede it will take. I contend that the culture, geography and history of Afghanistan, along with an examination of the nature of our enemy, argues persuasively against the certainty of an ultimate Go Big success, and following such a strategy may in fact actually reduce our chances.
We must also resist the temptation to go too small, as this could likewise result in an avoidable failure. Rather, it is crucial to analyze the history, geography, and people of Afghanistan, examine what has worked and what has failed in the past (paying particular attention to multiple repeating, failed patterns), and in particular study the motivations, characteristics, and tactics/strategy of our enemies in order to identify a course of action that has the best chance to safeguard America’s vital national interests.
Inherent in this process must be a willingness on the part of our leaders and idea-makers to approach this strategic problem without a requirement that a solution must be made to fit into pre-existing American molds. While there are many good things to be found in the Army’s newest Counterinsurgency Manual (FM 3-24), we must avoid the belief that all counterinsurgency strategies must be crafted by the formulae found therein. Perhaps even more critically, we must avoid the unquestioned belief that because a particular strategy worked in Iraq, it is certain to work in Afghanistan (covered in detail in the epilogue).
America’s leaders must be focused on practically identifying the path most likely to succeed after conducting thorough analysis of all the key factors involved, and be willing to craft policy that operationalizes the results. It is, of course, a requirement that we understand those concepts that may have universal application and operate within a loose framework that recognizes our own unique history, culture, and capability to wage war. But what ought to be a non-negotiable requirement is that we must concede that we will not always be able to achieve a certain outcome simply because we desire it to be so.
The recommendations that follow may not be what many policy-makers would ideally prefer, but it is my view that with proper leadership and resources, this plan has the best chance of success of anything currently being considered. The ultimate objective must remain rigidly focused on the attainment of the President’s strategic objectives:

We have a clear and focused goal:  to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”

-- President Barack Obama,

March 27th, 2009, Washington, DC

Executive Summary
The main points of this report:

  • “Go Deep” is a comprehensive and pervasive strategy that incorporates critical components of the intelligence community, special operations forces, conventional military forces, military Advise and Assist units, governmental assistance and development, provides economic advisors, features educational development, and other elements of national power to form a unified, two-track objective: to 1) conduct an aggressive counterterrorist effort associated with 2) robust, focused support to indigenous governmental and military forces. Far from representing a “retreat” from Afghanistan, it “goes deep” into numerous elements of the country and region.

  • In its most basic form, Go Deep seeks to build and strengthen the Afghan government, help develop its economy, place an increased emphasis on drastically increasing literacy rates through targeted education programs, and invest in the development of its armed forces while simultaneously conducting an aggressive regional counterterrorist campaign. This plan completely agrees with the view that we cannot abandon Afghanistan. Where it differs with many well known opinion-makers, however, is in which levers of national power give us the best chance of achieving national policy objectives.

  • The “Go Big” strategy carries significant risk, little of which has been publicly considered or debated. Due to the fact that logistical constraints caused by the enormous, simultaneous redeployment from Iraq would delay the introduction of meaningful numbers of combat forces in Afghanistan, the insurgent forces will have a strategic window of opportunity to continue making gains. If we are unable to convince the people of Afghanistan to support our efforts, it won’t matter how many combat troops we introduce – just as it didn’t matter how many troops Britain had 150 years ago or the Soviets did in the 1980s.

  • In 2009 Afghanistan today, conditions on the ground are nothing like that of Iraq of early 2007 and there is little reason to believe the tactical success achieved by the Iraq surge could be repeated today in Afghanistan. There is presently no successful “Sons of Iraq”-type operation that would remove large numbers of enemy fighters from the streets, valleys and mountains. No large segment of the insurgency has indicated any interest in establishing a ceasefire with allied forces. The insurgency in Afghanistan today is spread over hundreds of thousands of square miles of inhospitable terrain and even 40,000 additional fighters would likely be insufficient to militarily stem the tide.

Go Big” Analyzed
The recently leaked assessment written by the commander of NATO’s International Stabilization and Assistance Force (ISAF) General Stanley A. McChrystal is a very well written and reasoned document. On several levels it presents sound logic and advice. But the questions it does not address are as important – and in some cases more so – than those it does.
Foreign Invaders”
The potential for the population to view the introduction of tens of thousands of additional troops as foreign “invaders” or “occupation forces” has received far too little consideration particularly given that US troops have already been there for eight long years and will remain for many years to come. The McChrystal report does at least mention the historic propensity for the Afghan people to view foreign troops as foreign invaders. He correctly writes:
An isolating geography and a natural aversion to foreign intervention further works against ISAF. Historical grievances reinforce connections to the tribal or ethnic identity and can diminish the appeal of a centralized state. All ethnicities, particularly the Pashtuns, have traditionally sought a degree of independence from the central government, particularly when it is not seen as acting in the best interests of the population. These and other factors result in elements of the population tolerating the insurgency and calling to push out foreigners (p.2-4).

An isolating geography and a natural aversion to foreign intervention further works against ISAF.” – General Stanley McChrystal

Figure 1, Hindu Kush Mountains in Afghanistan Photo: Daniel L. Davis
But then inexplicably the report does not address how this danger will be mitigated once tens of thousands of additional troops are deployed. McChrystal’s report expressly states that, “To gain accurate information and intelligence about the local environment, ISAF must spend as much time as possible with the people and as little time as possible in armored vehicles…” Many experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past eight years has already hardened a meaningful percentage of the population into viewing the United States as an army of occupation which should be opposed and resisted. Further, there is much evidence to suggest that a portion of the opposition we face is based simply on our presence. The introduction of upwards of 40,000 additional troops is almost certain to further exacerbate this problem. Ironically, however, there is another question that must be answered in regards to the troop increase: questions of second and third order effect problems aside, are that many troops even enough to accomplish the stated operational task?
Is 40,000 Enough?
To most, 40,000 additional troops seem like a large number, particularly when compared to the 20,000 of the Iraq surge, but according to high ranking officers who have previously commanded combat troops in Afghanistan, 40,000 is not enough. Marine Colonel Dale Alford said at a September counterinsurgency conference in Washington that it would require somewhere on the order of 10 brigades just to train the Afghan National Police (ANP) and another eight to work with the Afghan National Army (ANA) – on top of what we have today. Those 18 fighting brigades, totaling between 60,000 and 80,000, would also need an appropriate number of support units, probably in the neighborhood of 15-20,000. These 100,000 additional troops, he said, represent the minimum number of troops necessary to effectively conduct the COIN mission in Afghanistan.
If this highly regarded Colonel is right, the significance of his view cannot be overstated: if we attempt to execute a full-blown counterinsurgency fight, but deploy less than half the required number of troops, we may prove incapable of accomplishing the tactical mission necessary to accomplish the President’s strategic objective. During my time in Afghanistan I did not take part in combat operations but did travel through many parts of the country. I can tell you from what I did see, combined with the direct combat experience I have had in the past, that COL Alford’s assessment is dead on the mark. Recent combat action in Afghanistan only serves to reinforce this truth.
The battle last year at Wanat, which resulted in 36 US casualties (nine killed), and was repeated only days ago (3 October 2009) in a village called Kamdesh when eight Americans were killed, involved insurgent forces attacking Americans on a fixed base. In both cases the number of US troops was far too few to control the area of responsibility. Each base was situated in an isolated location distant from reinforcements.

Figure 2. Wanat, Afghanistan.

Figure 3. Kamdesh, Afghanistan
In order to have adequately controlled either area the Army would have needed hundreds more troops – troops senior commanders simply didn’t (and still don’t) have. But this is the key point here: the location where the battles of both Wanat and Kamdesh took place are two tiny islands in the vast sea of the rugged mountains of Nuristan Province, as graphically seen in Figures 2 and 3 above: if it would have taken hundreds more troops to properly garrison these two isolated locations, how many more would it take to provide even minimal coverage for all the other important locations scattered throughout Afghanistan? Viewed in context, even the 100,000 troops COL Alford recommended might be too few; 40,000 certainly wouldn’t be enough.
Trust and Hope
A current US Government official who was born and raised in Afghanistan and has personal access to cabinet-level ministers of the Afghan government – but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on this subject – suggested that the number one problem facing the United States’ efforts in Afghanistan is the absence of hope among the people. On the surface this may sound like a minimal problem, but as this official explained (whom I’ll refer throughout this paper as “Mr. Rahimi”), “One of the most serious problems affecting the people of Afghanistan is the absence of hope. Hope in a viable Afghan state, hope in the prospects for a good life, hope that they can have justice.” Without this hope and belief in the United States’ ability to deliver results and a trust in the legitimacy of the Afghan Government, Mr. Rahimi explained, the population will never support our military efforts, and thus no counterinsurgency effort, regardless of how fully supported with troops, will succeed.
To underscore the importance of attaining the trust and rekindling the hope of the people, General McChrystal emphatically stated in his report that the people of Afghanistan:
represent many things in this conflict – an audience, an actor, and a source of leverage – but above all they are the objective… GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and ISAF have both failed to focus on this objective. The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials and ISAF’s own errors have given Afghans little reason to support their government. These problems have alienated large segments of the Afghan population. They do not trust GIRoA to provide their essential needs, such as security, justice, and basic services. This crisis of confidence, coupled with a distinct lack of economic and educational opportunity, has created fertile ground for the insurgency.
But as Mr. Rahimi explained, the declaration made by numerous high ranking American officials that the next 12 to 18 months are probably a period in which this effort will be decided may have unwittingly undercut our ability to build that trust. “It was a serious problem that General McChrystal's report was leaked and this 12 month timeframe was mentioned,” Mr. Rahimi continued, “because this completely undercuts the ability of Afghanistan's citizens to foster hope. They believe right now that the West is not likely to succeed in 12 months and so will likely withdraw, leaving them in the lurch.” Further exacerbating the problem – and deepening the lack of trust the people of Afghanistan have in their government – is that the dearth of hope affects government officials as well. “I have talked to cabinet ministers of Afghanistan,” he began:
who hardly try to hide the fact that they are corrupt and try to get all the wealth they can for themselves and their families because they don't believe the US is going to see this through; they believe that they've got to get what they can now so that when things fall apart, they've got a 'parachute' to survive. Until we eliminate this pervasive attitude - and it is present at the highest levels of government all the way down to village residents - we cannot succeed in Afghanistan.
One of the first hard questions American decision-makers must answer, then, is what happens if we indeed deploy these 40,000 additional troops but are not able to gain the trust and hope of the people? By declaring this 12 to 18 month time frame, we have not only set expectations and caused trepidation among the people of Afghanistan, but perhaps more importantly have started a clock ticking in the minds of populations in key Western countries as well: if ISAF is unable to produce meaningful results in that time period – meaning generally by the end of 2010 – there will be increasingly intense pressure placed on the United States, Great Brittan, Germany, Italy and other Western capitols to cut the best deal possible and end the mission.
Unintended Consequences: Redeployment from Iraq & the Logistics Logjam
The danger of that possibility is made all the more stark when one considers the physical requirements of getting that many troops trained, deployed, and in the field conducting operations. If President Obama gave the order to deploy the troops by 1 November, it would likely be mid to late Spring before the first of those currently un-programmed units arrived in theater, and almost certainly about a year from now before all of them were on the ground. It is an enormous undertaking to alert, train, prepare, and then deploy that many troops on short notice. But our ability to even get them to Afghanistan would be greatly constrained because of another major operation that is already scheduled to take place at just the same time: the redeployment of upwards of 80,000 troops from Iraq.
What few have considered is that no major redeployments of US troops from Iraq are currently contemplated to begin until after the January 2010 provincial elections in that country. The President has already declared that all combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraq no later than August 2010. That means that between January and August 2010, the US will have to redeploy approximately 80,000 troops and their associated equipment – at precisely the same time they would have to deploy 40,000 to Afghanistan.
To suggest that such a requirement would strain the logistical system of the United States Military would be a gross understatement. Almost certainly we would be forced to either delay the redeployment of our forces out of Iraq or delay the introduction of forces into Afghanistan. Either of those possibilities opens our country to political and diplomatic – not to mention security – problems. But of primary concern in this report is the impact this logistical problem would portend for a “Go Big” strategy in Afghanistan. The October 12th edition of the Army Times put the nature of the problem into stark relief:
A sustainable increase in Army forces in Afghanistan hinges on the drawdown in Iraq, a senior Army planner told the Army Times. The active Army now has 11 BCTs (brigade combat team) in Iraq and five in Afghanistan, and soldiers are getting, on average, a little more than 12 months at home between deployments… “We’ve increased forces in Afghanistan before we’ve reduced forces in Iraq in a meaningful way,” the planner said. “If they want forces sooner than 2010, there are no additional forces available. You’ll have to pull them from Iraq and put them in Afghanistan. I would not support making forces turn any faster than they are now.” The demand for ‘enablers’ is greater now than it was at the height of the surge in Iraq almost two years ago, he said.”
Even if we were able to get all the new units on the ground by October/November of next year, it takes time for them to get acclimated to conditions and adequately established on the ground to begin conducting effective counterinsurgency operations. Troops have to become acclimated to the altitude, they have to conduct thorough reconnaissance of the area of operations, and they have to develop an understanding of and a relationship with the local populations. All this takes time. Further, in the best of circumstances it would take four to six months for a US military unit to begin rolling back insurgent gains; longer if circumstances aren’t favorable. That would bring us to January or February of 2011 before it would be reasonable to expect our Armed Forces to begin showing success. And yet that will be four to six months after the just announced 12 month period has expired.
Enemy Actions and Strategy
All during the time between this hypothetical November 2009 public decision by the President to commit the troops and the completion of their deployment and preparation for combat, the insurgent enemies are certain to increase the pace of their operations with a sense of great urgency. They will be armed with the knowledge that Western publics have historically grown weary of inconclusive wars. Further, al-Qaeda and associated movements (AQAM) will almost certainly seek to conduct new, spectacular terrorist attacks against the nations they perceive are the most vulnerable to pressure from war weary publics.
Right now, according to numerous polls – all of which are read with great interest by terrorists who seek to harm Western interests – there are rising anti-war/anti-Afghanistan sentiments in the United States, Great Brittan, Germany, and Italy. If terrorist organizations know that there is a 12 to 18 month clock ticking for Western publics, the risk that they will seek to attack the interests of some or all of those countries increases. One has to look no further than the Spanish example of 2004 to see what would motivate terrorists to make such an attept.
Trust and Hope II
If the people of Afghanistan have no faith in their government today and no trust in the strength of Western military might (from their perspective, the most powerful military alliance on earth has proved incapable of defeating the Taliban after eight years of fighting), how will that faith and trust be prevented from further deterioration over the next 12 months, which will primarily be spent deploying and preparing for combat? Mr. Rahimi told me it is very unlikely the people will trust the US until or unless they see tangible success – something that would take considerably longer than 12 months.
“A ‘surge’ of forces designed to stay a couple of years won’t work in Afghanistan as it did in Iraq,” he said. “The people must know that we are committed to the significant amount of time necessary to turn things around, or they won't work with us and we won't succeed.” Most experts agree that a majority of insurgent forces are Afghan citizens. If those citizens do not come to believe that we will win, and thus “come to our side,” the insurgency will only grow in strength and effectiveness during this time of vulnerability. Acknowledging such a danger, General McChrystal wrote, “A failure to reverse the momentum of the insurgency will not only preclude success in Afghanistan, it will result in a loss of public and political support outside Afghanistan.”
The “Go Big” strategy carries significant risk, little of which has been publicly considered or debated. Due to the fact that logistical constraints caused by the enormous, simultaneous redeployment from Iraq would delay the introduction of meaningful numbers of combat forces in Afghanistan, the insurgent forces will have a strategic window of opportunity to continue making gains. If we are unable to convince the people of Afghanistan to support our efforts, it won’t matter how many combat troops we introduce – just as it didn’t matter how many troops Britain had 150 years ago or the Soviets did in the 1980s. It would indeed be a tragedy of historic proportions if the United States expended the enormous resources in time, money, and human life currently being contemplated, but proved unable to succeed and were later forced to withdraw in a Saigon-esque humiliating retreat.
Unfortunately, there is another major pillar necessary Go Big success that is unstable: the Government of Afghanistan.
Governmental Corruption
Much has been written about the 20 August Presidential Elections and the presence of widespread irregularities and ballot-box stuffing. As of this writing, the UN-backed Election Complaints Commission has yet to complete its investigation into the election and final results have yet to be certified. Much has been written about this issue and I will here only briefly address it. Rather, this paper will discuss what may be the greater, albeit less visible, concerns regarding Kabul’s ability to govern long term and its effect on the US strategy there.
In order to defeat the insurgency, the government of Afghanistan must become a credible, viable institution that is viewed as legitimate by its people. General McChrystal underscored the importance of that objective when he wrote: “Widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforces a culture of impunity… The resulting public anger and alienation undermine ISAF’s ability to accomplish its mission.”
The last time there was effective governance in Afghanistan was the rule of King Zahir Shah who ruled from 1933 until deposed in a coup in 1973. During that 40 years the country was loosely ruled from Kabul, but the issues of day-to-day governance were primarily handled by the local tribes and regions. But given the geographical realities of the country and the near absence of a modern communications or transportation system, this arrangement worked very well. According to one Afghan citizen I spoke to who lived there during the reign of Zahir Shah, there was a strong sense of peace and security. “We didn’t even have to worry about locking our doors at night,” he told me. But after the King was deposed in the near-bloodless coup in 1973 that brought Daoud Khan to power things began to change.
The Afghan Communists that had helped Daoud come to power themselves overthrew the government in a very bloody coup in 1978. Less than two years later, however, the Communists were unable to placate their masters in Moscow and Soviet troops invaded on Christmas Day 1979. From that moment continuing through today, Afghanistan has been at war of one type or another and the people have become jaded at the parade of ineffectual governments that have been put in office by one power or another. Under the circumstances, it isn’t hard to understand why the current government enjoys such little support from its people. Without the active support of the people to oppose the Taliban and other insurgent groups, there is nothing the United States or any other external force can do to beat the insurgency.
One of the most crucial questions, then, is how do we eliminate this governmental corruption so that it can effectively govern, provide basic services for its people, and successfully defend them against insurgent violence. The answer: focused efforts, significant resources, and most critically, the passage of time – enough of which we may not have.
It is not enough to simply say the rulers are corrupt and “ought” not be that way. Due to the tribal nature of how Afghanistan has historically been governed, cutting deals, making temporary alliances, and sometimes the use of violence have been the norm. In order to bring about a change there’s got to be the creation of an entirely new cohort of leaders and rulers in Afghanistan.
The men who rule today have in most cases risen to power either through the application of violence or the application of money. For this dynamic to change, there must be an aggressive education effort (more on this later in the paper). But right now there are virtually no potential leaders in the education pipeline with which we could have near-term hope for meaningful change in how Afghanistan is governed.
It is hard to believe, but an astounding 72% of the adult population is illiterate, only 16% of high school-eligible children are in school, and less than two percent of college eligible students are in class. Until this deplorable state of affairs is addressed there is little hope that in the near future Afghanistan is going to be able to provide itself with adequately qualified men and women with which to govern. Regrettably, this dearth of educated elite also hamstrings Afghanistan in another important category: military leadership.
Growing the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF): Who Will Lead – Who Will Pay?
Another of the major fundamentals upon which our eventual redeployment from Afghanistan is contingent, is the training, mentoring, and now growing, of the ANSF. In his report, McChrystal said the Afghan National Army (ANA) is scheduled to grow to 134,000 by the Fall of 2010 but recommended “a new target ceiling of 240,000” and that the Afghan National Police (ANP) “must be raised to 160,000” for a total force of 400,000. There are two significant problems with this proposal that must be addressed.

Raising an army and police to those numbers (400,000) requires not simply a bunch of men wearing uniforms, but capable leaders at multiple echelons.

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