A January 2008 Atlantic Council report began, “Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan.” General Jim Jones, who was chairman of both the Council and that report, tells WaPo’s Bob Woodward that, “We are doing the same things well and the same things poorly.”

National security adviser James L. Jones told U.S. military commanders here last week that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict.

The message seems designed to cap expectations that more troops might be coming, though the administration has not ruled out additional deployments in the future. Jones was carrying out directions from President Obama, who said recently, “My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops.”

“This will not be won by the military alone,” Jones said in an interview during his trip. “We tried that for six years.” He also said: “The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed.”

Jones delivered his message after a 30-minute briefing by Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, who commands 9,000 Marines here, nearly half the new deployments Obama has sent to Afghanistan. The day before in Kabul, Jones delivered the same message to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new overall commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal has undertaken a 60-day review designed to address all the issues in the war. In addition, Jones has told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that they should focus on implementing the current strategy, completing the review and getting more Afghan forces involved in the fight before requesting additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan.

The question of the force level for Afghanistan, however, is not settled and will probably be hotly debated over the next year. One senior military officer said privately that the United States would have to deploy a force of more than 100,000 to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.

While Nicholson and other commanders strongly desire substantially more troops, they say they would prefer that it be Afghan rather than American forces meeting this need.  Neither are likely to be forthcoming any time soon.

Obama and Jones are reluctant to build up force levels to recreate the “empire” seen in Iraq and Hamid Karzai’s government has not been forthcoming with more forces.

Jones and other officials said Afghanistan, and particularly its president,  have not mobilized sufficiently for their own war. Karzai has said Afghanistan is making a major effort in the war and is increasing its own forces as fast as possible.

In an interview, Nicholson said that in the six months he has been building Camp Leatherneck and brought 9,000 Marines to the base, not a single additional member of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) has been assigned to assist him. He said he needed “Afghanistan security forces — all flavors,” including soldiers, police, border patrol and other specialists.

The evening before the Jones meeting, a Marine was killed during a patrol in Now Zad, a town in Helmand where people had fled the fighting. “If we had several ANA in Now Zad, we might not have lost that Marine,” said one civilian official, noting that the Afghan army could supply the “eyes and ears” that were badly needed to sound warnings and scout on patrols. One senior U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan estimated that the military needs one member of the Afghan security forces for every 10 U.S. troops to operate safely and stabilize the area. That would mean Nicholson should have approximately 900 Afghans, and he effectively has none.

Ibn Muqawama, a pseudonymous guest blogger at CNAS fellow Andrew Exum’s counterinsurgency blog, wonders if the reluctance to send more forces isn’t a repeat of past mistakes.

Umm…maybe I was watching the wrong war, but it seemed like there was a period between, say, 2003 and 2006 when insufficient troop levels (and the Bush administration’s unwillingness to raise them) were regularly cited as a major factor in the ongoing failure to stabilize Iraq.

Snark aside, one of the lessons from Iraq has to be that the basic services, governance, and economic development lines of operation, which many U.S. commanders knew pretty well before FM 3-24 and the “Surge,” weren’t very sustainable until a modicum of security was established.  So if we are committed to our current strategy in Afghanistan, it seems pretty darn important that we’re confident we have the force levels necessary to establish that minimum level of security.  Otherwise our “civilian surge” and reconstruction initiatives seem likely to be DOA.  That’s not a call for the administration to reflexively throw in more troops without a rigorous analysis of strategic costs and benefits, but it does suggest that it needs to double-check to ensure that its ends, ways, and means in Afghanistan are are all aligned.


Karzai has been running Afghanistan (nominally, at least) since December 2001, so expecting that he’s going to suddenly become more competent or cooperative would be foolish. And, certainly, we are unlikely to see significantly more forces contributed by our NATO allies.  So, realistically, if more troops are necessary for this mission, we have two choices: 1) send more Americans or 2) change the mission.

Jones is certainly right that more troops will not magically solve Afghanistan’s problems.  But establishing security may be a necessary precondition to establishing a viable economy.  Then again, there’s no assurance that we can achieve either end.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. See also “Saving Afghanistan: An Appeal and Plan for Urgent Action” and April’s follow-up, “A Ten-Year Framework for Afghanistan: Executing the Obama Plan and Beyond.”

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