The war in Afghanistan has not been going well, and it is no surprise that Americans are frustrated. Many observers can rightly point to signs of progress: the functionality of specific Afghan government ministries and programs, the slow growth of the Afghan National Army, the building of major infrastructure such as roads and dams, and agricultural improvements. These accomplishments, however, have not created the conditions that the United States has aimed to achieve: an Afghan state with a competent government considered legitimate by its people and capable of defending them, such that Afghanistan can no longer function as a safe haven for Islamist terrorist groups. Indeed, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of coalition forces, recently suggested, the situation shows signs of deteriorating: Afghan enemy groups remain highly capable, have gained momentum, and have expanded their areas of operations. Violence against coalition forces is rising. So the question is: Why haven't we been winning in Afghanistan?
Although I served on McChrystal's assessment team, I do not know how he would answer this question, nor could I speculate about his recommendations for the strategy going forward. But after much research, as well as two visits to Afghanistan this year, I personally think that the military operations themselves are failing because there has been no coherent theaterwide counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Despite U.S. President Barack Obama's newly announced "Af-Pak" strategy, the U.S. and coalition campaign this summer is a continuation of the poorly designed operations from 2008. And the sheer inertia of military operations means that it will be hard to turn this supertanker around for the better part of this year. But turn it around we must, starting with correcting the following flaws in the strategy that McChrystal and his team inherited from their predecessors.
1. Fighting in the wrong places
NATO forces are widely dispersed throughout Afghanistan, even in the Pashtun areas in the south and east, rather than concentrated on one or two priorities. A possible exception is Helmand, the only province in which two brigades are deployed -- the British force and the recently arrived U.S. Marine expeditionary brigade. In contrast, during the surge in Iraq, the United States concentrated about half of its forces in Baghdad and its suburbs. Baghdad was the center of gravity of the fight. If we controlled it, we'd win; if the enemy controlled it, we'd lose. So five brigade combat teams -- roughly 25,000 troops with their enablers -- protected the city of 8 million people. Four more teams protected Baghdad's southern approaches, and at least one, sometimes two, additional teams protected the city's northern suburbs.
There is no simple equivalent to Baghdad in Afghanistan. Instead, most of the population -- and the insurgency -- is dispersed in rural areas. Nevertheless, some areas, such as Kandahar city and the districts around it, are more important -- to the enemy, to the Afghan government, and to us -- than others. And yet, there are almost no counterinsurgents whatsoever in all but two of the districts around Kandahar, and none in the city itself, just a scant footprint from the Afghanistan national security forces. Worse still, the ratio of counterinsurgents to the population in those two districts is approximately 1 to 44, close to the minimum requirement. A good evaluation of our priorities in Afghanistan would yield a significantly different, and more effective, distribution of coalition forces. This is undoubtedly why McChrystal recently told reporters that he will be concentrating forces around Kandahar city.