Upping a Losing Ante in Afghanistan?

There is an old saw in military affairs that there is a tendency in war to increase the action (up the ante) whether one is losing or winning. In the case of losing, the purpose is to avoid defeat; if one is winning, an increeased effort is intended to seal the victory by administering the coup de main to the opponent.

Despite abundant effort that it is unlikely to succeed, the United States seems determined to up the ante in Afghanistan, with reports of upwards of 20,000 additional troops scheduled for deployment in the next few months. In all likelihood, the additional troops will not make any noticeable difference in the outcome. Why not?

There are several reasons for pessimism, three of which deserve mention here. The first is that the troop increases are an act of desperation to try to stave off an impending defeat and overthrow of the Karzai government by the insurgents: the U.S. is upping the ante to avoid defeat. The telling admission that this is the intent is that most of the new troops will be deployed around Kabul to protect the capital from the insurgency. The implicit admission here, of course, is that the contest in the rural areas that dominate the country has essentially been lost. Falling back to protect the capital is an old theme in Afghan history and a tacit acknowledgement that things have not chanced much since 2003, when Karzai was effectively the President of Kabul.

Second, the troop increases are pitifully inadequate to make mch difference. This assertion has been made previously in this space but bears reiterating. According to an article in today’s New York Times, there are currently 62,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, 32,000 of which are American. An addtional 20,000 Americans raises that total to about 80,000 (which allows for the withdrawal of some troops by American allies). That number is clearly a drop in the bucket to control a country with 32 million people and an area of a quarter million square miles (about the same as Texas). Even conservative estimates suggest the need for at least 300,000 to make a difference. Nobody is proposing that.

Third, the whole enterprise defies Afghan history. Once again, this point has been raised before in this space. The British have fought over Afghanistan three times, twice in the 19th and once in the 20th centuries, and the Soviet Union tried in the 1980s. All these efforts failed because if the Afghans have one overriding characteristic, it is their determination and talent for expelling unwanted outside invaders. What makes the U.S. government think it is different?

 Robert Gates has agreecto stay on as Secretary of Defense in the early Obama administration. Although he is associated with the militaristic views of the Bush administration, he is also an outspoken opponent of American involvement in “unwinnable” wars. Afghanistan is clear such a war. Gates doubtless did not dare say so under Bush for fear of being sacked by a team that put loyalty before truth; maybe he will be able to under Obama. As the old Kenny Rodgers song puts it, “You have to when to hold them, know when to fold them.” And when not to up the ante.


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