You Be the General

At his blog, Nation-Building, Aziz Poonawalla analyzes the policies of the first-tier Democratic candidates with respect to Afghanistan such as they are and finds the lack of attention stunning. He proposes increasing our forces there.

That’s certainly the prevailing wisdom but I’m far from certain that it’s correct. The Durand Line, Pakistan’s 1,600 some-odd mile long border with Afghanistan, runs through some of the wildest, most rugged territory in the world. So long as that border remains open what, specifically, can be accomplished in Afghanistan? I think that achievable missions there are limited to preventing the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies from re-establishing their control over Afghan territory and force protection and that the level of troops in Afghanistan for those missions are probably about right.

I’m open to those who think otherwise so you be the general. What missions can be accomplished in Afghanistan? How many troops will you need? How will you supply them? As I see it the constraints are that we aren’t going to war with Pakistan or invading Pakistan. That runs the risk of further destabilizing the already shaky Pakistani government or of Pakistan using its nuclear arsenal against our troops. And we don’t have any large military bases in any country adjacent to Afghanistan.

I don’t understand what the mission of a large force in Afghanistan would be. Defending the border? Nonetheless just for fun I’ll take a quick crack at some of the logistical issues involved in maintaining a force the size of the one in Iraq in Afghanistan.

I figure that supplying our troops takes about 50 kg. of materiel per man per day (it may be more). Afghanistan is land-locked and we don’t have the bases to supply Afghanistan overland. The country has virtually nothing, not even enough food to feed its own people. Everything will need to be brought in by plane.

50 kg. X 150,000 = 7,500,000 kg. per day. The cargo capacity of a C130 is roughly 20,000 kg. That means, using round numbers, roughly 400 landings per day. There will need to be multiple landings and takeoffs going on at the same time—you don’t offload a C130 instantaneously. I don’t believe that any airport in Afghanistan has that capacity. Kandahar’s airport doesn’t. We’ll need to build one, plus space for the freight helicopters necessary to supply troops in the field. That’s about a quarter of the traffic of O’Hare Airport, the second busiest in the world. It’ll make a nice target so it will need to be fortified and defended.

Where will the C130’s come from? I have no idea. Presumably they’ll fly out of a base in Iraq which in turn will need to be supplied, fortified, and defended.

9 comments… add one
  • What if the Taliban made Pakistan disintegrate and organized a tribal jirga that requested, en masse for the admittance of Pushtun areas into Afghanistan. No Kabul government could turn that down and survive. At best they might make it to the next elections with a lot of american blood paying for it. Pushtun reunification has been a constant policy in Afghanistan since the original drawing of the Durand line.

    So what’s the Taliban position after they have accomplished perhaps the sole unifying political policy goal of Afghan governments stretching back over a century? Obviously, they’ll be strong in the new parts of Greater Afghanistan but also, I think all throughout pushtun dominated Afghanistan. They can even offer to integrate their military forces into the Afghan national army and stand for elections. They might very well win outright.

    And then what?

  • People need to get over the idea that more “boots on the ground” automatically means more capability or effectiveness. Often in these conflicts less is actually more. There is a lot of xenophobia in Afghanistan and given it’s history it is probably justified. One of the original reasons for a “light” CIA/Special Ops force back in 2001 to make our war there appear fundamentally different from the Soviet invasion, for example.

    Your point on logistics is important as well. Most of it comes over land via Pakistan and central Asia, but Afghanistan is certainly a more airlift-intensive environment than most conflicts, particularly Iraq. The ability to sustain a larger force there, even if it were desirable, is suspect.

    Sealing the border is ultimately impossible. We took many steps in that direction in 2004-2005 by establishing many outposts, but the effect only hindered infiltration. Instead of large groups crossing, now quite small groups cross and interdiction, especially when locals collude, is about impossible. Closing the border is simply not an option.

    Additionally, the Taliban have grown significantly stronger in Afghanistan since their defeat in 2001. Up through 2005 they still depended heavily on the Pakistani sanctuary and would winter-over there to rest and refit. In 2006 and this year Taliban operations did not cease during the winter indicating they have an adequate support network inside Afghanistan. They are still dependent upon the Pakistan safe-have, but not as much as they once were.

    The reasons for the Taliban comeback are complex and it’s difficult to give them any justice here, but for those interested I highly recommend the latest from Antonio Giustozzi

  • I’d also like to say that none of the candidates seem to have a grasp of the complexity of this conflict and their recommendations show their ignorance. Edward’s Pakistan prescription is a case-in-point – no government has been able to control the border area going back hundreds of years. Does Edwards seriously believe that threats to withhold aid will somehow provide Pakistan the capability to control their own territory – something they’ve never been able to do?

    This kind of, well, stupid, policies will only make things worse.

  • TMLutas:

    If Pakistan collapses, it’s a whole new ballgame. Who has control of Pakistan’s nukes?

    If Pakistan were really in chaos, I wouldn’t be surprised if India and the U. S. were to invade just to put some control into the situation. That would be preceded by a massive bombardment campaign. It would be a mess. A worse mess than Pakistan normally is, I mean.

  • Andy:

    That’s essentially my point. How would Pakistan cope with that size force next door? Would they allow overflight?

    I was pleasantly surprised by the relative ease of overthrowing the Taliban. My conclusion was that the key was the small footprint force. The converse is probably also true: a larger force would elicit more opposition.

  • I hate to go back to the flypaper theory, because the results are so tragic, but isn’t at least part of the reason that the US invaded Iraq was so that it would attract Al Qaeda types away from Afghanistan to a theater where AQ’s home field advantage is smaller?

  • To the best of my recollection that was an after the fact theory, DaveC, rather than a reason for invading.

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