There’s No Substitute for Troops on the Ground

“I hope people who say this war is unwinnable see stories like this. This is what winning in a counterinsurgency looks like.”

Lt. Col. William F. McCollough, commander of the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, is walking me around the center of Nawa, a poor, rural district in southern Afghanistan’s strategically vital Helmand River Valley. His Marines, who now number more than 1,000, arrived in June to clear out the Taliban stronghold. Two weeks of hard fighting killed two Marines and wounded 70 more but drove out the insurgents. Since then the colonel’s men, working with 400 Afghan soldiers and 100 policemen, have established a “security bubble” around Nawa.

Colonel McCollough recalls that when they first arrived the bazaar was mostly shuttered and the streets empty. “This town was strangled by the Taliban,” he says. “Anyone who was still here was beaten, taxed or intimidated.”

Today, Nawa is flourishing. Seventy stores are open, according to the colonel, and the streets are full of trucks and pedestrians. Security is so good we were able to walk around without body armor — unthinkable in most of Helmand, the country’s most dangerous province. The Marines are spending much of their time not in firefights but in clearing canals and building bridges and schools. On those rare occasions when the Taliban try to sneak back in to plant roadside bombs, the locals notify the Marines.

The key to success in Nawa — and in other key districts from Garmsir in the south to Baraki Barak in the center — has been the infusion of additional United States troops. The overall American force in Afghanistan has grown to 68,000 from 32,000 in 2008. That has made it possible to garrison parts of the country where few if any soldiers had been stationed before. Before the Marines arrived in Nawa, for instance, there were just 40 embattled British soldiers there.

The chronic troop shortfall made it impossible to carry out the kind of population-centric counterinsurgency strategy that has paid off in countries from Malaya to Iraq. NATO forces could enter any district but not hold it. As soon as they left, the Taliban would return to wreak vengeance on anyone who had cooperated with them. One NATO general compared it to “mowing the lawn.” That ineffectual approach allowed the Taliban to regroup after 2001.

Now the coalition has enough troops to carry out a “clear, hold and build” strategy — but only in a few districts. Overall force levels remain far below what they were in Iraq during the surge — when 174,000 foreign troops worked with 430,000 Iraqi security personnel. Afghanistan, which is bigger than Iraq, has just 102,000 coalition troops and 175,000 local security forces.

That is why Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, has submitted his controversial request for 40,000 additional troops. He emphasizes that this is not an inflated figure but the bare minimum required to roll back a tough, determined foe.

Some in the White House and Congress imagine that our troops can muddle along at current levels while training the Afghan security forces to take over. But this ignores the brutal logic of war: Either you have the initiative or the enemy does.

In the past few years, the Taliban have been on the march. They have been able to bring large areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan under their sway. If President Obama rejects or waters down General McChrystal’s request, he would be sending a terrible message of irresolution that would embolden the Taliban and dismay any Afghans tempted to cooperate with coalition forces. If, on the other hand, the president were to back his commander, the general would be able to maintain and build on the momentum generated by this summer’s operations.

During 10 days spent in Afghanistan at the invitation of Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Central Command, I observed that a difficult task has been further complicated by the checkered results of the Afghan election. But what seems to be conspicuously absent from the conversation in the United States is the realization that Afghanistan’s corruption problem, like its security problem, can be best addressed by additional troops.

Given what I saw and heard on my visit, I believe it is indeed possible to get Afghanistan’s politicos to do a better job — you just have to watch them closely. That’s what soldiers from the Third Brigade, 10th Mountain Division, are doing in Baraki Barak, a district of Logar Province south of Kabul, under the command of Lt. Col. Tom Gukeisen.

Like Colonel McCollough’s Marines in Nawa, Colonel Gukeisen’s soldiers have thrown a security cordon around Baraki Barak. Inside they are carrying out what they call an “extreme makeover.” Working with a support team from the State Department, they are dispensing aid dollars and enhancing the authority of the local governor, whose new district center is next to a joint Afghan-American combat outpost.

“If you’re not sticking next to the Afghans,” one American officer tells me, “they’re going to hell.” But if United States soldiers and officials do stick close by their Afghan counterparts, substantial improvements are possible. Nawa and Baraki Barak make that clear.

Poor governance is an argument for, not against, a troop surge. Only by sending more personnel, military and civilian, can President Obama improve the Afghan government’s performance, reverse the Taliban’s gains and prevent Al Qaeda’s allies from regaining the ground they lost after 9/11.

Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.