The Right War

Gen. Stanley McChrystal needs to acknowledge that the battle for Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal clearly explains how the special operations force in Afghanistan was conducting a "successful counterterrorism operation" to "find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze" the enemy ("Becoming the Enemy," March/April 2011). But it's instructive that he never mentioned any role for Afghan forces.

It's with good reason that the general's stated objective was simply to defeat terrorists, not win the hearts and minds of the Pashtun population, as so many of America's political leaders attest. That counterinsurgency doctrine has failed, and McChrystal is honest in ignoring it. Although the tasks of population protection and economic handouts still make up 80 percent of the U.S. effort, they cannot succeed. The Pashtuns in southern Afghanistan are concerned not with the U.S. presence in their country, but with trying to figure out whether the Afghan forces or the Taliban will emerge victorious in the conflict. The Pashtuns are the prize, not the means of winning the war.

Americans cannot persuade Pashtuns to fight against the Taliban. They cannot alter the character of Afghan tribal and political elites. It's time to change and cut back on the mission: Let's focus, as McChrystal emphasized, on destroying the Taliban networks. The special operations force approach should be shared with U.S. conventional forces. The United States should adjust its force level to, say, 40,000 or fewer troops and stop giving billions in aid that has created a culture of entitlement in Afghanistan.

America cannot sustain the political base at home to continue doing the fighting for the Afghans. But its firepower, aerial capabilities, and ground-based networks can prevent the Taliban from massing the forces needed to seize Kabul. The United States can succeed in its goal of preventing transnational terrorists from using Afghanistan as a sanctuary, even while Afghans fight a low-level civil war in the Pashtun territories and along the Pakistan border for the next decade or more.

Bing West
Author, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan
Newport, R.I.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

CRAWLER.0310: I had the honor of working next to the general. This man's single goal in life was to make what we were doing better. What mattered to him was that our performance was top-notch at all times. He, more than anyone, understood the network we were after, and his team understood it as well. Their goal was to win: win legally, win violently, but win.

JDM307: Networks that rely on huge unsustainable budgets and do not include in a real way local and regional partners might not achieve the desired effect. I would argue for the formation of another type of network that would complement the general's; it would be composed of long-term regional experts who would over time develop lasting relationships with local populations and organizations of regional influence.


A Tale of Two Viruses

The dangerous business of comparing cyber and bio attacks to each other.

David E. Hoffman's article ("The New Virology," March/April 2011) laid out some interesting likenesses between Stuxnet and swine flu, but the differences may be more telling. In some ways, cyber and bio attacks are almost polar opposites, with an inverse relation in frequency and effect. Bioattacks threaten grave devastation, but the big one rarely -- if ever -- occurs.

The actual pandemics we deal with, like the swine or avian varieties, produce minimal casualties. Biological warfare is an improbable threat, akin to an asteroid strike: Because neither terrorists nor militaries prefer weapons that are cumbersome, difficult to deploy, and erratic in effect, biological weapons have rarely ever been used.

In contrast, malware used against computer networks is a daily occurrence, with millions of incidents every month. Stuxnet was precisely the sort of high-caliber, targeted attack that we have never encountered in the world of biological warfare. It combined sophisticated single-use techniques and was crafted to limit collateral damage. There are four or five advanced cyberpowers that have Stuxnet-like capabilities, and perhaps another 20 countries are developing them. The world should prepare for more such attacks in the future.

Unfortunately, policy can go off course if we too easily equate bio and cyber warfare. The U.S. government squandered billions of dollars on Project BioShield, without improvement to security, while cyber went neglected even as agencies and companies were pillaged by foreign opponents. Hoffman's piece may inadvertently serve to perpetuate that kind of mistake.

James Lewis
Senior Fellow
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, D.C.

David E. Hoffman replies:

I quite agree that cyber and bio threats should be evaluated for differences as well as parallels. Cyberattacks are certainly more frequent, but they have not caused mass casualties, at least not yet. By contrast, biological agents pose a danger to living organisms. The anthrax letters were more lethal to humans than Stuxnet. The swine flu pandemic led to thousands of deaths and was considered a relatively mild pandemic. Thankfully, we have not experienced a larger attack with biological agents, but it is prudent to prepare for risks that are not necessarily frequent. A nuclear bomb has not been used in military conflict for more than six decades, yet we make extraordinary efforts, and investments, to prevent and deter nuclear attacks. We need to better understand both bio and cyber threats for the same reason; to explore the dangers doesn't mean to equate them in policymaking.

From ForeignPolicy.com:

HURRICANEWARNING: All I know is, conventional wisdom is nearly always wrong. If people are saying that this is the generation of virology, it will probably end up being something very different, and usually less complex. Example: IEDs. Probably one of the top 10 most effective tools of warfare ever devised … and, we never saw it coming.