His bottom line is that there are two real options in Afghanistan: Either tell the Kabul government we are pulling out, or put in enough troops to actually break the cycle of corruption, which he said would be a minimum of about 40,000. “We either put in enough to control, or we get out.” The worst thing we could do, he added, is put in enough troops to get more people killed but not enough to do anything to break change the behavior of corrupt officials. Also, he said, it is more about what you do than the actual number of troops — “If you do it wrong, you could put it a million troops and it wouldn’t make any difference.”
Now, the reason I couldn’t attend Dave’s talk is because I was finishing up this story, about how a 40,000-troop increase in Afghanistan will entail deploying practically every available combat brigade the U.S. has to either Afghanistan or Iraq. There are some ways of mitigating that: there may be a Marine regiment or maybe two ready, but overwhelmingly, the force has to come from the Army. And like Andy Krepinevich told me, there’s nothing that says you can’t go all in — is it really so likely that Iran or North Korea will take advantage of U.S. overstretch? — but it is indeed a gamble. Furthermore, unless you’re going to ask five heavy brigades to become infantry brigades, something that’s been done in Iraq but never Afghanistan, then you’ve only got 31,600 soldiers you could send into Afghanistan available in December. More than 40,000 is really kind of pushing it, particularly if the point is to sustain the escalation for longer than the length of the additional brigades’ tours.
So the question becomes where else you get the forces to make the “all” in Dave’s all-or-nothing approach work. Anders Fogh Rasmussen says enigmatically that he thinks the NATO allies will pony up. And maybe they will, but it will break precedent, and the question of what they’d do remains, as does the related question of national caveats inhibiting the actions of troops from select NATO nations. If I had been at Dave’s NSN/CAP talk, I’d have asked him why a “minimum of 40,000″ is the magic number, but as it stands I suspect I’ll have to do so by email.