John McCain: Winning the War in Afghanistan

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) today made the following remarks to the American Enterprise Institute on Winning the War in Afghanistan:

More than three years ago, I spoke at AEI about the war in Iraq. At that time, conditions on the ground were going from bad to worse. Violence had accelerated out of control, al Qaeda had firmly entrenched itself in Anbar province, and Iranian-backed Shia militias had taken control of large swaths of Baghdad and southern Iraq. The Iraqi government and its security forces appeared hopelessly corrupt, sectarian, ineffective, and unable to break the cycle of reciprocal violence fueled by Sunni and Shiite extremists. The Bush administration continued to pursue a failed war strategy—despite mounting evidence of its catastrophic consequences. More and more Americans, members of Congress and opinion leaders wondered whether the war in Iraq could ever be won, or whether it was already lost.

It seemed obvious to me that failure in Iraq would be a calamity, and to prevent it we would have to accept the urgent necessity of a new strategy -- a strategy based on the fundamental principles of counterinsurgency, the imperative to secure the civilian population, and a significant increase in the number of American troops. Yet more than a year passed, as the deteriorating situation in Iraq approached the point of no return and a substantial majority of Americans turned firmly against the war, before President Bush at last shifted course, dismissed Secretary Rumsfeld, and adopted such a strategy.

Thanks to the courage and skill of our troops on the ground and the wisdom of leaders such as General David Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and General Ray Odierno, the collapse of the American effort in Iraq was not just arrested but reversed. With the right strategy finally in place -- and I should note the intellectual contributions to it by General Jack Keane, Fred and Kim Kagan, Andrew Krepinevich, and Gary Schmitt -- and the resources on the ground necessary to implement it, we not only stepped back from the precipice of a strategic disaster of immense and long lasting consequences, but progressed toward obtaining our objectives in Iraq beyond the most hopeful projections for the new strategy's success.

We now face a similar moment with respect to the war in Afghanistan. The situation in Afghanistan is nowhere near as dire as it was in Iraq just two years ago -- to cite one example, civilian fatalities at their peak in Iraq were ten times higher than civilian deaths at their peak in Afghanistan last year. But the same truth that was apparent three years ago in Iraq is apparent today in Afghanistan: when you aren't winning in this kind of war, you are losing. And, in Afghanistan today, we are not winning. Let us not shy from the truth, but let us not be paralyzed by it either.

Nearly every indicator in Afghanistan is heading in the wrong direction. Civilian fatalities in Afghanistan have increased dramatically as security has deteriorated, particularly in the southern provinces of the country. The number of insurgent attacks was higher every single week in 2008 than during the same week in 2007. Since 2005, violence has increased over 500 percent, and despite the presence of tens of thousands of coalition troops, growing portions of the country suffer under the influence of the Taliban. The percentage of Afghans rating their security positively has declined from 77 percent in 2005 to 40 percent today. Only a third of Afghans say that U.S. or NATO forces have a strong presence in their areas, down from 57 percent just two years ago, and Afghans cite the lack of security and corruption as the foremost reasons their country is moving in the wrong direction.

In the face of these daunting statistics, many Americans have begun to wonder whether it is truly possible to turn this war around. Public commentary increasingly focuses on past failures in Afghanistan by the Soviets and British, and warns that the country has earned the label "graveyard of empires." Some suggest it is time to scale back our ambitions in Afghanistan—to give up on nation-building and instead focus narrowly on our counterterrorism objectives, by simply mounting operations aimed at killing or capturing terrorist leaders and destroying their networks, while leaving the broader tasks of building fundamental security, governance, and development to someone else -- or abandoning them altogether.

I disagree. I am confident victory is possible in Afghanistan. I know Americans are weary of war. I'm weary of it. But we must win the war in Afghanistan. The alternative is to risk that country's return to its previous function as a terrorist sanctuary, from which al Qaeda could train and plan attacks against America. Such an outcome would constitute an historic success for the jihadist movement, severely damage American standing and credibility in a region that already doubts our resolve, and threaten the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. A terrorist sanctuary in Afghanistan would encourage and enable al Qaeda and other terrorist groups to destabilize neighboring countries. Broader insecurity in Afghanistan -- with the violence, refugee flows, and lawlessness it would engender -- could spill beyond its borders to nuclear armed Pakistan or other states in south and central Asia, with the gravest implications for our national security.

Success is possible in Afghanistan. Afghans reject the Taliban. Just 4 percent of Afghans wish them to rule the country, and they rate the Taliban as by far the most dangerous threat to their nation. Despite the deteriorating conditions, nearly 70 percent continue to say the U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban were a good thing. What the people in Afghanistan want most is not the exit of foreigners, or of coalition troops, but rather the things that a properly configured and resourced strategy would deliver: security, some degree of development, and basic good governance.

The problem in Afghanistan today is not innate xenophobia or hostility to the West. It is our own failed policies that are the problem. We have tried to win this war without enough troops, without sufficient economic aid, without effective coordination, and without a clear strategy. The ruinous consequences should come as no surprise. If we change our policies, the situation on the ground will change, too.

I say this with some confidence because we have been through this before. I refer not to Iraq, but to Afghanistan itself. For a brief but critical window between late 2003 and early 2005, we were moving on the right path in Afghanistan. Under Ambassador Khalilzad and Lt. Gen. David Barno, the United States completely overhauled its strategy for Afghanistan. We increased the number of American forces in the country, expanded non-military assistance to the Afghan government and -- most importantly -- abandoned a counterterrorism-based strategy that emphasized seeking out and attacking the enemy, in favor of one that emphasized counterinsurgency and the protection of the population. All of this was overseen by an integrated civil-military command structure, in which the Ambassador and the coalition commander worked in the same building, from adjoining offices.

The result was that, by late 2004, governance and reconstruction were improving and long-delayed projects, like the ring road that connects major Afghan cities, were at last getting off the ground. Entrenched warlords were being nudged out of power. Militias like the Northern Alliance were being peacefully disarmed of their heavy weapons, and national elections were conducted successfully and safely. The Taliban showed signs of internal dissention and splintering.

Rather than building on these gains, however, we squandered them. Beginning in 2005, our integrated civil-military command structure was disassembled and replaced by a balkanized and dysfunctional arrangement. The integrated counterinsurgency strategy was replaced by a patchwork of different strategies, depending on the location and on which country's troops were doing the fighting. And at a moment when many in Afghanistan and Pakistan continued to nurse doubts about America's commitment in South Asia, the Pentagon announced its intention to withdraw 2,500 American combat troops from the theatre.

These decisions laid the groundwork for the situation we see in Afghanistan today. They also underscore why "lowering our goals"—both rhetorically and in practice—is precisely the wrong move today.

Counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen has rightly warned against thinking that we can forgo the intensive work necessary to solidify security, development, and governance in favor of a narrower focus on "counterterrorism." The seductive appeal of such an approach is obvious. "After all," Dr. Kilcullen has written, "we might say we went into Afghanistan to defeat al Qaeda, not to build a model state in the Hindu Kush." Yet, as Dr. Kilcullen warns, this narrow counterterrorism approach carries a fatal flaw: namely, it will not work. As we have learned, most painfully in Iraq but in other fragile states as well, effective counterterrorism operations rely, among other elements, on accurate intelligence provided by the local population, which has no incentive to cooperate in the absence of sustained security or the promise of a better life.

In Iraq prior to the surge, for instance, U.S. Special Forces had complete freedom of action to strike at terrorist leaders, backed by more than 120,000 conventional American forces and overwhelming airpower.

Although we succeeded in killing numerous terrorist leaders through this approach - including the head of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the insurgency continued to grow in strength and violence. It was not until we changed course and applied a new approach -- a counterinsurgency strategy focused on providing basic security for the population -- that the cycle of violence was broken and al Qaeda was seriously damaged.

Similarly, in Afghanistan, if we focus on counterterrorism to the exclusion of counterinsurgency, we will only ensure that we successfully execute neither. Simply put, we cannot achieve our counterterrorism goals in Afghanistan without counterinsurgency, and we cannot achieve our counterinsurgency goals without development and good governance. As General Petraeus put it in a recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, "We have a hugely important interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary for trans-national terrorists. Achieving that core objective, in turn, requires the accomplishment of several other significant tasks," namely, the application of counterinsurgency principles by increased numbers of U.S. troops.

Let us make no mistake: we will fail in Afghanistan without a serious change in both strategy and resources. I welcomed the President's decision last week to deploy some 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, given the dire state of affairs there. I believe the additional force levels can make a significant difference, but more troops alone cannot lead to success. A major change in course is long overdue. The new approach we need in Afghanistan should consist of several elements—several of which are, in fact, precisely those elements we had in place just a few years ago.

Reapply the principles of counterinsurgency. As it was in Iraq, security is the precondition for political and economic progress in Afghanistan. And the way to provide enduring security is by applying the same basic principles of counterinsurgency tailored for the unique circumstances of Afghanistan, backed with robust intelligence resources and a sufficient number of troops to carry it out.

This strategy should be operationalized through a nationwide civil-military campaign plan. There is today a campaign plan for Regional Command-East, one in the works for Regional Command-South, and a patchwork of other operations throughout the country. There is no comprehensive, nationwide plan for the war that spells out what level of combat troops and resources will be required, where, and to do what. The fact that we are engaged in this fight without such a plan more than seven years after our initial invasion explains much of the failure of our efforts thus far.

In order to carry out the necessary planning and coordination for a nationwide counterinsurgency campaign, we should establish a military headquarters that is adequately staffed and resourced, similar to that of General Odierno when he served under General Petraeus in Baghdad. In addition, the senior coalition commander and the senior international civilian in Afghanistan must better coordinate efforts by the various international agencies and nongovernmental organizations, ideally through a body in Kabul that can routinely synchronize these efforts with military operations and Afghan government activities. And as we deploy more troops to carry out new operations, we must focus quickly on securing supply lines into Afghanistan -- a task made more urgent with the recent loss of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan.

Help the Afghans surge. Everyone knows the United States increased the number of its soldiers in Iraq during 2007. What is less well known is that the Iraqis surged with us, adding over 100,000 security forces to their ranks. It is now time for the Afghans to do the same. The Afghan army is already a great success story: a multiethnic, battle-tested fighting force. The problem is that it is too small -- it currently stands at 68,000 - and, even with the increase in projected end strength to 134,000, it will remain too small. For years, the Afghans have been telling us they need a bigger army, and they are right. After all, their country is more populous and significantly larger than Iraq. At a minimum, we need to more than double the current size of the Afghan army to 160,000 troops, and consider enlarging it to 200,000. The costs of this increase, however, should not be borne by American taxpayers alone. Insecurity in Afghanistan is the world's problem, and the world should share the costs. I believe we should work with our allies to establish an international trust fund to provide long-term financing for the Afghan army. At the same time, we need to increase the number of trainers and mentors assisting the Afghan police, who have suffered neglect and mismanagement for too long.

Change alliance diplomacy. Our diplomacy with NATO allies has led to frustration on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years. The U.S. has increased the number of troops it contributes to the fight, asked the allies to match our efforts, and grown frustrated with some allies' refusal to do so. In Europe, our allies complain their contributions have gone unappreciated, and that haranguing from Washington only makes the war less popular at home. While I believe the United States should continue to encourage European troop contributions and press for the reduction of caveats on their use, I also believe we should move away from stressing what Washington wants Europe to give, and more toward encouraging what Europe is prepared to contribute. Many of our NATO allies -- and other allies and partners outside NATO, including countries in Asia and the Gulf -- are fully capable of contributing many badly needed resources. In many areas, non-combat related contributions -- from police training to a trust fund for the Afghan National Army -- will be as critical to long-term success as more European troops on the ground.

Increase and reform non-military assistance. We also must increase our non-military assistance to the Afghan government, with a multi-front plan -- something akin to a "Plan Afghanistan" -- for strengthening its institutions, the rule of law, and the economy in order to provide a sustainable alternative to the drug trade. International partners, whom have grown enamored of using nongovernmental organizations to deliver services at the local level, have inadvertently eroded government authority. By empowering the government at local levels, we can help it extend its authority throughout the country.

In order to empower the government, however, we must work to reduce corruption and improve its delivery of services. We can start by agreeing with the government in Kabul on specific governance and development benchmarks, then working closely with its leaders to ensure they are met. Throughout this process, we should not be timid about pushing the government to crack down on corruption, no matter the level at which it is present, or in using our leverage to reduce the toxic influence of corruption on Afghan society.

Get control of the narcotics problem. Taking control of the narcotics problem is central to our efforts in Afghanistan. At last year's Bucharest summit, the NATO allies agreed that narcotics trafficking was fuelling the insurgency, but failed to reach consensus on how to combat this problem. Increased security will help enormously -- we have already seen poppy growers relocate their crops from newly secure areas to less secure ones in the south.

As we bring greater security to poppy growing areas and crack down on illegal narcotics activity there, we should increase our efforts to help Afghans get alternative crops to market and prosecute traffickers by Special Courts. And both the United States and Europe should provide assistance to expand the capacity of Afghan farmers to meet international export standards, in order to help boost the agricultural sector of the economy.

Work regionally. Afghanistan's problems exist, of course, in a regional context, and we must increasingly view them as such. The appointment of a new special U.S. envoy is a step in the right direction, and his goal should be to turn Afghanistan from a theater for regional rivalries into a commons for regional cooperation.

A special focus of our regional strategy must be Pakistan. For too long we have viewed Pakistan as important because of our goals in Afghanistan. Yet Pakistan is not simply important because of Afghanistan; Pakistan is important because of Pakistan. We cannot simply subordinate our Pakistan strategy to our Afghanistan policy.

We should start by empowering the new civilian government in Islamabad to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health, and education. Today, development assistance constitutes just one percent of all U.S. funding directed toward programs in the tribal and border areas. This must change. We should also strengthen local tribes in these areas who are —to fight terrorists -- the strategy used successfully in Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq -- while recognizing that such an approach will not be nearly as quick or far reaching as it was in Iraq. We should strengthen the army and the Frontier Corps' counterinsurgency capacity, and do all we can to stiffen the will of our Pakistani partners to fight the war they face at home. Finally, we should make clear to all in the region, through both word and deed, that the United States and the international community are committed to success in the long run.

Communicate the stakes and the challenges to the American people. Above all, leaders in Europe and America must be clear with their publics about the nature of the effort in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, where the surge of troops conducting counterinsurgency operations, combined with a quickly spreading Anbar Awakening, transformed the country in less than a year, Afghanistan is likely to be harder and longer. The violence is likely to get worse before it gets better. The scale of resources required to prevail will be enormous, and the timetable will be measured in years, not months. The American people should understand the nature of this protracted conflict, and their leaders must spell out -- on a continual basis -- how this war is developing, why patience is in order, and why progress and eventual success is vital, despite inevitable setbacks and disappointments.

We need to take all of the steps I have outlined mindful of the unique burdens we have put on our fighting men and women. The surge in Iraq placed great strains on our forces, and we must avoid drawing down troop levels there too quickly or risk jeopardizing the hard-won security gains. The reinforcements we send to Afghanistan will similarly stretch our ground forces. All who advocate such a move are, I believe, obliged not to allow the U.S. military to become hollowed out, but rather to stand behind it by bearing the full price of our nation's conflicts. This means insisting on a further increase in the total size of U.S. ground forces, accelerating the reset of their equipment, and committing to the modernization they need and deserve.

None of this will be easy. While today Afghanistan is seen by many as "the good war" and the one into which the dispatch of thousands of additional American troops can go mostly uncontested, this day may soon pass. It is possible -- indeed likely -- that sometime in the near future, perhaps a year from now, as the fighting in Afghanistan increases, the costs grow more dear, and casualties become more numerous and more visible, that the will to finish this mission will dramatically erode.

Yet we cannot afford a crisis of confidence. Should the day I described arrive, let us remember the national will we mustered in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when we resolved not to permit such a terrible act to ever again occur, and never again to abandon Afghanistan to the terrorists that plot our destruction. As Americans, we must accept the responsibilities history has assigned us and our interests require. We must do the hard work, as we always have, of building a stable and prosperous world order, in which ever increasing numbers of human beings can flourish in peace, security and opportunity. We have achieved great things in the past; we will achieve greater things still, but only if we keep our faith in and accept the burden of being indispensable to the global success of our shared values and interests, and the progress of humanity. This war will take time and commitment, and it will not be easy. But as it has so often before, history -- and the world -- will look to America for courage and resolve.

Thank you.

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I don't care about anything but getting our troops the stuff theyt need to win! We can fight the U S Stuff anytime but our troops are DYING And we have not even helped them! What is the holdup! Here hopefully congress the senate and the White House Will understand this, and it's from "WE THE PEOPLE":

He's making this argument now because he, like many people, sees signs that Obama wants to pull back from Afghanistan rather than trying to continue denying it as a safe haven for AQ.

Obama is looking for good reasons to justify cutting losses in Afghanistan, and take a fast boat out of there. He can't carry the burden of politically-costly casualties, and risks the ire of a large portion of his core base if he seriously prosecutes the Afghanistan War.

McCain has said elsewhere that he realizes the a cookie-cutter approach can't work there, but that perhaps some of the broader principles that succeeded in Iraq might have some application in Iraq. It echoes what alot of our hoity toity COIN enthusiasts say.

I also wouldn't look to Obama to lean on Petraeus. Obama said the surge wouldn't work, and Petraeus proved him wrong. Obama also voted no on a resolution condemning an ad charging Petraeus with treason the Sept after the surge began. He also came right up to the line intimating that Petraeus was lying about progress in Iraq during Senate testimony on that occasion.

First my apologies to your serious students of military tactics,as this is probably a little more of a rant against John McCain than it is about what to do with regards to Afghanistan.
I mean, I like the guy,and wish he had of been a better candidate,but this speech just rambles.

First off some of his facts are wrong. Starting with the fact that Iraq has a million+/- more people than Afghanistan(27,145,00-A to 28,993,000-I). Afghanistan does have almost half again the square mileage(647,500 sq km to 438,317 for Iraq)This just means that Afghanistan is a lot more rural(to put it nicely).So,what works in Iraq may or may not work for Afghanistan! No offence,but I kind of doubt if John McCain knows any better than I do what will work here(at least from what he's saying in this speech).

Then,it really bugs me that McCain seems to be a one-note speaker."We're doing it wrong!"Ahhh...John,isn't Gen Patraeus in charge here? I think he knows what he is doing,and has already proven himself. So what is the point of McCain's rant???