Going 'deep', not 'big', in Afghanistan
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A veteran United States Army officer who has served in both the
Afghanistan and Iraq wars warns in an analysis now circulating in Washington
that the counter-insurgency strategy urged by General Stanley A McChrystal is
likely to strengthen the Afghan insurgency, and calls for withdrawal of the
bulk of United States combat forces from the country over 18 months.
In a 63-page paper representing his personal views but reflecting conversations
with other officers who have served in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel L
Davis argues that it is already too late for US forces to defeat the
"Many experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past
eight years has already hardened a meaningful
percentage of the population into viewing the United States as an army of
occupation which should be opposed and resisted," writes Davis.
Providing the additional 40,000 troops that Gen McChrystal reportedly requested
"is almost certain to further exacerbate" that problem, he warns.
Davis was a liaison officer between the Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan
(CFC-A) and the Central Command in 2005, just as the Afghan insurgency was
becoming a significant problem for the US military. In that assignment he
consulted with the top US officers and staff of the CFC-A and traveled widely
throughout Afghanistan visiting US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) combat units.
He also commanded a US military transition team on the Iraqi border with Iran
In the paper, Davis suggests what he calls a "Go Deep" strategy as an
alternative to the recommendation from McChrystal for a larger
counterinsurgency effort, which he calls "Go Big".
The "Go Deep" strategy proposed by Davis would establish an 18-month time frame
during which the bulk of US and NATO combat forces would be withdrawn from the
country. It would leave US Special Forces and their supporting units, and
enough conventional forces in Kabul to train Afghan troops and police and
provide protection for US personnel.
The forces that continue to operate in insurgent-dominated areas would wage "an
aggressive counterterrorism effort" aimed in part at identifying Taliban and
al-Qaeda operatives. The strategy would also provide support for improved
Afghan governance and training for security forces.
Davis argues that a large and growing US military presence would make it more
difficult to achieve this counterterrorism objective. By withdrawing
conventional forces from the countryside, he suggests, US strategy would
deprive the insurgents of "easily identifiable and lucrative targets against
which to launch attacks".
Typically insurgents attack US positions not for any tactical military
objective, Davis writes, but to gain a propaganda victory.
The "Go Deep" strategy outlined in the paper appears to parallel the shift in
strategy from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism being proposed by some
officials in discussions in the White House in recent weeks.
After reading Davis's paper, Colonel Patrick Lang, formerly the defense
intelligence officer for the Middle East, told Inter Press Service he regards
the "Go Deep" strategy as "a fair representation of the alternative to the one
option in General McChrystal's assessment".
Lang said he doubts that those advising Obama to shift to a counterterrorism
strategy are calling specifically for the withdrawal of most combat troops, but
he believes such a withdrawal "is certainly implicit in the argument".
Davis told IPS he was surprised to hear from one official in a high position in
Washington whose reaction to his paper was that what he is proposing in place
of the "Go Big" option is still "too big".
Davis said his views on US strategy in Afghanistan have been shaped both by his
personal experiences traveling throughout Afghanistan during his 2005 tour of
duty and by conversations with US military officers who have recently returned
"Mostly it was guys who've been out there in the field," said Davis. "They have
a different view from those who work in the headquarters."
"I think there's a whole lot of folks out there who agree with this," he said.
He was flown out of Iraq for medical treatment in early June after suffering a
partial loss of vision, and has been temporarily reassigned to the Defense
Intelligence Agency. However, Davis said he was not assigned to work on
Afghanistan and did the work on his Afghanistan strategy paper entirely on his
Davis said he had received permission from his immediate supervisor at DIA to
circulate his personal analysis and recommendations on Afghanistan on the
condition that he used only unclassified, open source information.
In the paper, Davis argues that the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by
McChrystal would actually require a far larger US force than is now being
proposed. Citing figures given by Marine Corps Colonel Julian Dale Alford at a
conference last month, Davis writes that training 400,000 Afghan army and
police alone would take 18 brigades of US troops - as many as 100,000 US troops
when the necessary support troops are added.
The objective of expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000, as declared
in McChrystal's "initial assessment", poses other major problems as well,
according to Davis.
He observes that the costs of such an expansion have been estimated at three to
four times more than Afghanistan's entire Gross Domestic Product, which last
year was $22 billion. Davis asks what would happen if the economies of the
states which have pledged to support those Afghan personnel come under severe
pressures and do not continue the support indefinitely.
"It would be irresponsible to increase the size of the military to that level,"
he writes, "convincing hundreds of thousands of additional Afghan men to join,
giving them field training and weapons, and then at some point suddenly cease
funding, throwing tens of thousands out of work."
The result, he suggests, would be similar to what followed the US failure to
reassemble the Iraqi Army after the invasion of March 2003.
Davis also cites "growing anecdotal evidence" that popular anger at the abuses
of power by the Afghan National Police has increased support for the
He calls for scaling back the increase in Afghan security forces to the
original targets of 134,000 Army troops and 80,000 national police. The crucial
factor in determining the future of the country, he argues, is not the numbers
of security personnel but whether they continue to abuse the population.
If that pattern of behavior were to change dramatically, Davis says, "the
number of Taliban fighters will dwindle to manageable numbers as those
presently filling their ranks will no longer be motivated to fight".
Davis challenges two arguments now being made in support of the
counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan based on the Iraq experience: that a troop
surge would help establish security and that the US military can reduce
insurgency by replicating the "Sons of Iraq" program of bringing insurgents
into militias that oppose their former allies.
The "surge" in Iraq was successful for a variety of reasons peculiar to Iraq
and not duplicated in Afghanistan, Davis argues. And the "Sons of Iraq" was
primarily the result of the alienation of the Sunni population by al Qaeda,
which trumped Sunni opposition to the US presence.
"[T]here is little to suggest," he writes in reference to the areas where the
Taliban has gained power, "that the population as a whole has reached a tipping
point whereby they are ready to support the coalition against the Taliban."
Challenging the argument of supporters of a larger war effort that it is
necessary to avoid an increased risk of new terrorist attacks, Davis argues
that being "myopically focused" on Afghanistan "at the expense of the rest of
the world" increases the likelihood of an attack.
The present level of US military involvement in Afghanistan, he writes, will
"make it more likely that terrorist organizations will take advantage of the
opportunity to plan and train elsewhere for the next big attack".
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.