Counterinsurgency Strategy In Afghanistan

General Stanley McChrystal was relieved of his duties as top commander in Afghanistan after making unflattering comments about the Obama administration in a Rolling Stone article. McChrystal is behind the recent surge in Afghanistan and a counterinsurgency plan to win the war. With McChrystal out, what are the consequences for the war? To find out, Robert Siegel talks with two military analysts: Kori Schake, senior research fellow at the Hoover Institution and former director of defense strategy at the National Security Council from 2002-2005; and retired Marine Col. Thomas Hammes, a senior research fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Do today's developments, the departure of General McChrystal and the new assignment for General Petraeus, have consequences for the conduct of the war in Afghanistan? And how is the counterinsurgency strategy that's so closely identified with General McChrystal actually doing?

We're going to hear now from two observers with different assessments of the counterinsurgency strategy. Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution was director of national defense strategy at the National Security Council from 2002 to 2005. She is a supporter of the current strategy. Welcome to the program.

Ms. KORI SCHAKE (Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution; Former Director of Defense Strategy, National Security Council): It's a pleasure to be with you.

SIEGEL: And retired Marine Colonel Thomas X. Hammes, or T.X. Hammes, is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. He's here to give his own views, not the Institute's, and his view is that the strategy is failing. Welcome to the program, T.X. Hammes.

Mr. THOMAS X. HAMMES (Retired U.S. Marine Colonel; Senior Research Fellow, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University): Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And let me ask both of you first, starting with Kori Schake, does the replacement of General McChrystal with General Petraeus signal a change in U.S. conduct of the war in Afghanistan?

Ms. SCHAKE: No, I don't think so. In fact, I think it was a very shrewd choice by the White House because it minimizes the potential disruption of removing General McChrystal.

SIEGEL: T.X. Hammes, do you agree that the change is not likely to have much effect on the conduct of the war?

Mr. HAMMES: The change itself on the conduct of the war are two entirely different subjects. And I agree that General Petraeus is a pick that allows the minimum disruption to the program as it currently exists.

SIEGEL: Just to be clear, though, has General Petraeus been just as enthusiastic about the counterinsurgency approach, Kori Schake, as General McChrystal has been?

Ms. SCHAKE: Yes, he has been. As one of the architects of it in Iraq and one of the authors of the counterinsurgency manual, I think he is in many ways even more closely associated with that approach to the war than General McChrystal was.

SIEGEL: Well, then, T.X. Hammes, let me put the question to you, should there be a rethink, perhaps at this moment, of the change in commander or, generally, a rethink of the strategy that is currently at work in Afghanistan?

Mr. HAMMES: Absolutely. The problem is we got a strategy, a population-centered coined strategy with no discussion of the assumptions. And the assumptions on which the plan is based - all counterinsurgency population-centric is based on the concept that the local government is a viable partner, and an Afghan-specific plan that Afghanistan can be governed centrally. I think these two, at least, are severely flawed assumptions. We have essentially developed a strategy and not resourced it.

SIEGEL: Kori Schake, do you agree?

Ms. SCHAKE: I actually do agree with much of what T.X. just said. One of the lessons we learned in Iraq was that by beginning with a top-down strategy, you reinforce authoritarian culture, you reinforce corruption, you reinforce all sorts of bad habits in the society, whereas, a counterinsurgency strategy focuses on growing support from the ground up.

I don't think the current strategy is adequately resourced to do that, and I think the most damaging element of the current strategy is the arbitrary timeline for drawing it down that the president stated in his West Point speech in December.

SIEGEL: That in about a year, the U.S. would at least begin to, in some way, draw down forces in Afghanistan.

Ms. SCHAKE: That's right. This is a long-term set of objectives and to believe that you can create a change of the magnitude we are trying to create in Afghanistan in this short a timeframe, I personally don't believe it's possible. Moreover, it doesn't look to me like the Afghans, the Pakistanis, the Taliban or others believe it's possible either.

SIEGEL: Well, Colonel Hammes, if the fixed number here is the timeframe as opposed to the strategy, is there something the U.S. could achieve effectively in Afghanistan with a different strategy, as you see it, that could be consistent with starting to draw down forces a year from July?

Mr. HAMMES: Yes, because it is a very long process and a very expensive one. So if we take the 10 years, let's say we're wildly optimistic and we can make this work in only 10 years, that will cost us about a trillion dollars and about 3,000 lives.

And if we're very, very good and we get a superb Afghan government and the economy doubles in those 10 years, the best we can do is a country that is poorer than today's Chad. So from a strategic point of view, investing those kind of resources to create another Chad just doesn't seem to make sense to me.

SIEGEL: But if you were at the table and you were making the case against what's happening now, what do you do?

Mr. HAMMES: Well, then you take a look at only about 40 percent of Afghanistan is really heavily contested. The north and the west are somewhat more peaceful. There are some disruptions but primarily coming out of the Pashtun Diaspora. So concentrate on those areas, work for a more traditional Afghan solution, which is a central government that's a rentier state. We provide support to them. They run their half of Afghanistan, and we let the Pashtuns pretty much continue to struggle in their half.

But the key is to reduce the commitment of U.S. resources to what is a strategic backwater and then refocus those resources in the critical parts of South Asia, which is, of course, India and Pakistan.

SIEGEL: When you say after 10 years, you're not counting the nine years that we've already been in Afghanistan. You're saying counting now 10 more years?

Mr. HAMMES: Yeah. Counting from today, it wouldn't work, so we have to use something else.

SIEGEL: Kori Schake, do you agree with that timeframe, first of all, that for success of the strategy that we associate with both General McChrystal and General Petraeus, there could yet be as long a war in Afghanistan - still more of it than we've already fought to date?

Ms. SCHAKE: Yes, I do think that's not an unreasonable timeframe, given how grandiose the objectives we're setting out to create are. I don't think you necessarily are looking at 10 years more of what we are doing now, but I do think it is essential to break the back of the insurgency and to create a stable security sphere before other things can happen.

SIEGEL: Well, Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution and Thomas Hammes of the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies, thanks to both of you for talking with us.

Mr. HAMMES: Thanks a lot.

Ms. SCHAKE: It's been a pleasure.

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