After spending a week in Afghanistan on invitation from top U.S. military commander Gen. David McKiernan, retired Army Lt. Col. John Nagl says he saw "a new spirit" of determination from the U.S. to stamp out the insurgency.
It was the second trip to the country for Nagl, who is an expert on counterinsurgency and works for the Center for a New American Security. His first visit to Afghanistan was in February 2007.
"Since then, a number of things have changed," Nagl tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I'm much more optimistic about Afghanistan than I was two weeks ago, before I headed over there."
Nagl says he agrees with other experts that conditions have deteriorated and the U.S. is in what he calls a stalemate. But he adds that since last year, the U.S. has established a counterinsurgency academy to train both Americans and Afghans. McKiernan has asked to stay for two years to execute a plan, and he has asked for more resources, including soldiers, economic aid and new diplomats.
"If he gets all of those things that he requested, with the understanding of counterinsurgency that he and his command have, this is a war that we can turn around," Nagl says. "I don't think we're winning right now, but I think that we can win this war. ... The question is whether we can give them what they need to accomplish this job."
Nagl says he believes the U.S. needs to double its American troops from 30,000 to 60,000 in Afghanistan. He also says the Afghan National Army needs to grow from 70,000 to 250,000. That may mean getting more help from the international community.
The question is whether the U.S. has the troops to fight the war, and Nagl says he is not sure.
"Frankly, the army isn't big enough for the wars we're asking it to fight right now," he says. "This is a fundamental mistake we've made since Sept. 11 . We've fought two long wars — two protracted wars — but we have not mobilized the U.S. for war. And I think there's a wonderful opportunity, also a necessity, I'm afraid, for the new administration to call on the nation for an additional spirit of sacrifice and an additional spirit of service."
One of the solutions he puts forth is to give economic incentives to the less committed insurgents who may be fighting for economic reasons — for money to feed their families.
"I think of an insurgency as an onion and the hard, sharp core of the onion — those are people who are motivated by ideology and frankly have to be killed or captured," Nagl says. "But as you go outside of the onion, as you get to the outer layers of the onion, insurgents are less and less committed, and in many cases they're driven purely by economic motives. And you can peel those folks away."
"And I believe some small form of expanded reconciliation program that offers them inducements, possibilities of jobs ... that sort of program offers real potential not to defeat the Taliban-based insurgency, but to slowly whittle it away. And these wars are won slowly, one insurgent at a time, one cup of tea at a time," he says.