Special Report From Afghanistan: The Future of the War in Afghanistan
As I write this, I am awaiting the plane that will take me back to the United States. My tour in Afghanistan is ending and I am on to my next assignment. Also as I write this, in Washington, D.C., important decisions are being made concerning the future of the strategic partnership between the United States and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – paramount among them, the enduring troop levels for 2015 and beyond.
A battle is stirring, both in Afghanistan and the Pentagon, over just what this residual force will actually do and, more importantly to the bureaucratic interest groups which are the armed services, who will run the war after 2015. There are two competing camps. The first – perhaps best titled the “Conventional Camp” – sees the enduring mission as primarily security force assistance to the Afghan national security forces. This camp argues that the American war in Afghanistan will end with the Afghans still in an argument – thousands of Pakistani-sponsored Taliban still making their yearly migration into Afghanistan to challenge government forces. The best way to help the Afghan government win this annual fight, Conventional Camp supporters argue, is to retain a small number of conventional forces, organized into advisor teams supported by enablers like attack helicopters and artillery, that can continue the current conventional-force mission of advising and assisting Afghan forces, albeit at a much-reduced scale.
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The other camp – the “SOF Camp” (for special operations forces) – argues that the best defense is a good offense. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to take over the command of the war in Afghanistan from the current conventional forces and concentrate on targeted strikes in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. They also want to continue the U.S. Army Special Forces’ current mission of village stability operations and Afghan local police (VSO/ALP, a kind of grassroots inoculation of the remote areas of Afghanistan, village by village, against the Taliban).
Conventional forces can continue their current mission in Afghanistan – advising and assisting Afghan national security forces – beyond the December 2014 deadline set for the withdrawal of “combat troops” from Afghanistan with or without SOF. The same cannot be said for the SOF Camp strategy, what Vice President Biden famously called in 2009 “counter-terrorism plus.”
The problem with the SOF Camp strategy is that their current success in each of these missions (counter-terrorism and VSO/ALP) is dependent on the huge number of conventional forces currently operating in Afghanistan. Conventional forces provide the big bases (well over 100 across Afghanistan) from which the SOF operate and are sustained. Conventional forces provide the umbrella of MEDEVAC coverage and medical treatment facilities that allow SOF to conduct their dangerous missions with assurance they are always within an hour of world-class medical care. And, frankly, the daily activity of conventional forces, interoperating with their Afghan security force counterparts across the battlefield, creates a lucrative target that causes Taliban activity – cell phone chatter and movement of men and weapons – that makes them vulnerable to SOF targeted attacks.
Without the massive conventional force that provides a network of bases and an umbrella of protection, as well as “chumming the waters” for insurgents, the SOF Camp strategy will be constrained to just a few geographic areas with no targetable intelligence, the sound of one hand clapping.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Lt.Col. Pat Proctor is currently deployed to eastern Afghanistan, serving as the chief of plans for the 1st Infantry Division. He is a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghan wars and the author of Task Force Patriot and the End of Combat Operations in Iraq. He is also a doctoral candidate in history at Kansas State University.