Counterinsurgency adviser David Kilcullen spoke last night at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where he also teaches (lucky students). Mostly, he addressed irregular warfare and how he sees it as the dominant form of war in the foreseeable future and that we’d be wise to prepare accordingly.
I wanted to highlight some of the points he made in remarks the other day to a British newspaper to clarify his position on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s troop request, and why a large troop surge is needed. First off, he said the Taliban are much better fighters than the insurgents in Iraq. “The Taliban love to fight,” he said, and their operational skills have improved significantly over the past three years as they’ve learned and adapted to U.S. and NATO tactics.
The Taliban’s rapid adaptation -- a theme we return to again and again here in our discussions of irregular warriors -- is what makes them so tough on the battlefield. American units rotate in and out of theater. The Taliban stay and can work a group of new recruits up the skill chain pretty rapidly by exposing them first to small ambushes or sniping away at American outposts and letting them grqduate to larger firefights. If they survive the early engagements, they become quite experienced and skilled fighters. They are going up against the world’s most advanced military after all.
“One of the [Taliban’s] biggest strengths is that they’ve shown the ability to absorb and adapt to successive increases in foreign presence… and come back stronger,” Kilcullen said. He believes trickling in a few thousand troops at a time as reinforcements is a bad idea: “They’ll just take it in stride and adapt; they’ve done that four times already.”
That’s why Kilcullen has publicly called for a plus-up of at least 30,000 to 40,000 troops and has said a “middle ground” option is just courting failure. McChrystal said he needs to launch a counteroffensive to knock the Taliban off stride and regain the initiative. That requires a large enough force that can keep the Taliban off balance, Kilcullen says. “The worst place to be is in that middle band of 20-30,000 troops.”
As for the larger counterinsurgency strategy of trying to convince the Afghan people their government isn’t hopelessly corrupt, Kilcullen said he had spoken by phone earlier in the day with a tribal leader from Helmand who said the people are ready to move past the tainted Afghan presidential election process. They like Karzai as a person, but they do want to see the government reform itself and address the rampant corruption.
Kilcullen believes the strategic focus must be on working with those instruments of local level governance that function in traditional Afghan society, such as tribal courts and gatherings of tribal leaders. The traditional counterinsurgency approach of connecting the people with the central government in Kabul and at the district level will have to wait for at least some improvement on the corruption front.