That is the question. Ultimately, the American strategy for counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Iraq, or any other failed/post-conflict nation has to be centered on economic growth as the objective.
The shame of the current debate over U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan is that I can't even tell if it matters. Peter Beinart makes a compelling argment that Afghanistan is not Vietnam ("It's worse," he says). Beinart's piece is a brilliant analysis on multiple leves, but I tend to come back to the numbers (see this old piece here on Iraq v Vietnam troop levels) and see a stark difference. 500,000 versus 20,000!
Finally, in Vietnam, we tried. In 1968, the US had over half a million troops there, and was spending 2.3 percent of GDP. In Afghanistan, as a percentage of GDP, we’re spending less than one-seventh that, and only recently got much above 20,000 troops. When doves say that what America needs in Afghanistan is a smaller force that eschews nation building and focuses merely on killing terrorists, they are proposing the same minimalist strategy that Donald Rumsfeld pursued for almost five years.
Does all this mean we should flood Afghanistan with U.S, troops? Not necessarily. Given the massive rise in Afghan corruption; the decline in support for NATO’s occupation, and the disastrous presidential election this summer, perhaps it is too late. But even if it is, let’s not flatter ourselves with Vietnam comparisons. In Vietnam, we lost because the war was unwinnable from the start. In Afghanistan, we had a grateful population, an unpopular enemy and a just cause, and we frittered it away.
I tend to blieve that the troop ask from General McChrystal is just not quantitiatively a big deal. It is surely a big deal politically! But isn't a bigger deal the question of longevity? If the Afghans and Pakistanis had a sense of firm resolve that U.S. forces intend to stay for the duration, that would probably matter a lot. And isn't a bigger deal whether we continue to mix the war on drugs with the war on terror? My guess is that we can win one of those wars, or lose both.