What Next in Afghanistan? – A Strategy Options Debate
ARMCHAIR GENERAL EXCLUSIVE!
TWO NOTED EXPERTS COMMENT ON AMERICA’S POLICY OPTIONS REGARDING THIS VITAL NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE
There is currently an important and passionate debate raging about the future course of American strategy in Afghanistan. Yet, today’s politically-charged atmosphere makes it difficult for the general public to obtain clear-headed objective analysis that is not tainted by partisanship and competing political agendas. The President is reported to be weighing various options for U. S. strategy and is expected to announce his decision in the coming weeks.
To provide our readers with revealing insight and a better understanding of this vital national security issue Armchair General asked two noted experts to offer their best analysis and insight about three likely options regarding future U. S. strategy in Afghanistan.
Ralph Peters is an acclaimed strategist, a former U. S. Army intelligence officer, and the best-selling author of 25 books, including his latest novel, The War After Armageddon, reviewed on this Website in September 2009. He is a popular columnist who frequently appears as an expert commentator in broadcast media. His insightful “Crisis Watch” column is a regular department in ACG.
John Sutherland is an operations and intelligence analyst at the Joint Center for Operational Analysis. His influential article “iGuerrilla: The New Model Techno-Insurgent” was published in the May 2008 issue of ACG, his web article "iGuerrilla Version 2.0 – The Terrorist and the Guerrilla Converge at Mumbai" appeared on this ACG website in December 2008, and his article “War on Terror: A Global Update” will be published in the May 2010 issue.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Sutherland’s views and opinions are his own and do not represent official Department of Defense policy or opinions.]
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) Current Status: The U. S. has around 70,000 troops now in Afghanistan as part of OEF. About 29,000 are part of the NATO International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF – total strength around 64,000). The remaining approximately 48,000 U. S. troops are not part of ISAF; many are helping to train the Afghan National Army (ANA). ANA strength currently is about 100,000, but plans have been proposed to expand ANA to between 134,000-260,000 over the next five years. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) began in October 2001 and continues today. After stunning initial success against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in which their remnants were driven into rugged mountain enclaves on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, a resurgent insurgency ensued that has allowed the Taliban to regain influence in many parts of Afghanistan. The fighting and terror attacks have spilled over into neighboring Pakistan, threatening the stability of that nuclear nation. Over 900 U. S. military personnel have died in Afghanistan since Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) began in 2001. Nearly 600 non-U. S. coalition troops also have died. In 2009 alone, over 250 Americans have been killed; October has proven to be the deadliest month for U. S. personnel since OEF began.
Three Possible U. S. Policy Options for Afghanistan and Expert Comments:
ACG asked the experts to answer this question for the following three proposed U. S. policy options for an Afghanistan strategy: “If you were advising President Obama as he deliberates, which option would you recommend and why?”
Option 1. Lean and Mean: An “anti-terror” option featuring a reduced “boots-on-the-ground” footprint, extensive intelligence assets, and limited conventional forces for raids and security that makes heavy use of Special Forces and airstrikes/drones to focus on a largely Anti-Terrorism objective. The main goal of this strategy is to simply prevent Al-Qaeda from reemerging as an international terror threat while shifting the focus away from countering the Taliban and its largely regional threat.
Option 2. Status Quo+: This option maintains approximately the same U. S. troop count (or only slightly elevated, say an additional 10K-15K more troops) and would be a "hold on for now” strategy as current U. S. nation-building and counterinsurgency efforts continue. This permits U. S. leadership to see what the coming months/years deliver in terms of opportunities for new Afghan policy while making incremental improvements on the ground in Afghan Forces, local government functions, etc.
Option 3. Double Down: A "Go-Big" option along the lines of the much-publicized General Stanley McChrystal plan for a full Counter-Insurgency policy involving 40,000+ additional U. S. troops and a potential multi-year commitment.
Our Experts Respond With Their Strategy Advice
RALPH PETERS: Option 1, Lean and Mean, is by far the best. We need to remember why we went to Afghanistan in the first place (it wasn’t to modernize a medieval country). We must return to a focus on destroying our terrorist enemies and their supporters, who are now in Pakistan, as well as in Yemen, Somalia and various other hellholes—but not in Afghanistan. We must extract ourselves from direct-fire participation in the decades-old Afghan civil war, while training and arming those factions with whom we share enemies and who are willing to fight.
Option 3, Double Down, is a program, not a strategy, but it’s a distant second-best choice. The worst is the second option, a tweaking of the current muddled approach that has empowered the Taliban.
Any serious strategy must begin with three elementary questions that we’ve neglected: What exactly do we seek to achieve? Can it be achieved? And will the return on our investment of blood and treasure be worth the cost? No one in the White House or the Pentagon has asked, let alone answered, even one of these questions.
Our troops are brave, but their senior leaders, civilian and military, are intellectual cowards who’ve succumbed to political correctness. Those leaders refuse to face up to the following dilemmas:
- Why is it that, after eight years of our engagement in Afghanistan, the Taliban find it ever easier to swell their ranks with volunteers ready to sacrifice their lives fighting the most-powerful military in history, while the Afghan military and police we’ve trained and funded won’t fight (or even show up)? The answer isn’t, “The Taliban pay them.” We pay better. And nobody sacrifices his life purely for the Afghan minimum wage. Most Afghans may not approve of the full Taliban program, but, in the clinch, they’re choosing the Taliban over us.
- We just can’t make the Afghans want what we want them to want. It may be inconceivable to us, but, apart from the urban intellectuals, Afghans prefer their primitive lifestyles to what we offer. The same held true when the British and then the Soviets attempted to modernize Afghanistan—and the Soviets didn’t just send in twice the number of troops we have on the ground, but spent more in constant dollars on extensive aid programs, while deploying tens of thousands of civilian advisors, many of whom spoke the local languages (the Soviet interagency process worked, since Moscow could order its civilians to go). A few years back a friend of mine participated in a briefing for our then-commander in Afghanistan. We were struggling to improve and complete the “ring road” connecting Afghanistan’s key cities. The Taliban kept blowing it up. Our general angrily asked, “Why do they keep doing this? The road’s for their own good.” When my friend suggested considering the situation from the Afghan point of view, he wound up in the dog-house—but, to Afghans, the road benefited us more than it did them.
- Our much-vaunted counter-insurgency (COIN) doctrine is bogus and doesn’t apply to Afghanistan. General Stan McChrystal, our four-star on the ground, is a superb special-ops soldier, an accomplished tactician and an effective operator. But he’s not a strategist—our Army doesn’t produce them anymore. Our entire Army experience is geared to produce great two-star division commanders, and we do. But they don’t make visionary four-stars. Bewildered by the environment, McChrystal turned to our COIN doctrine, which holds, essentially, that protecting the population and treating them well will lead to strategic success. That’s nonsense. No matter how many wells we dig, we will not turn pro-Taliban villagers against their own sons, brothers and cousins in arms who are fighting us. True to our inept doctrine, McChrystal’s analysis ignores religion as a motivating factor (although it’s crucial to the hardcore Taliban); plays down tribal rivalries and traditions; and assumes that Afghans can be persuaded that they really want to become third-rate Americans. We are trying to nation-build where there’s no nation to build. It’s madness.
- Our COIN doctrine stresses the importance of government legitimacy. Yet, our troops are dying to defend a wildly corrupt Afghan government that has no legitimacy and for which Afghans themselves won’t fight. Our troops are bleeding so thieves in government ministries can enrich themselves, while the people view the government as their enemy. Our leaders pretend that the Kabul government is magically going to get better. It won’t. Why should a single American soldier die to protect a government that couldn’t survive a month without our guns?
- Partisan voices in Washington warn that, if we don’t double-down and send more troops, Afghanistan will again become a haven for al Qaeda. First, the Taliban aren’t going to return to power in Kabul. Second, even if they did, Taliban leaders wouldn’t welcome a return visit by al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden’s antics caused them to lose power in 2001. They don’t want a replay. The Taliban’s Mullah Omar had been trying to get rid of bin Laden for over a year before the September 11th attacks. Osama kept making excuses why he couldn’t leave “yet,” and then the wrath of America came down. The Taliban are savages—but they have yet to attack our homeland. And no, they’re not the same thing as al Qaeda.
- More US troops don’t spell more security for Afghans, but more occupiers. In their eyes, we’re the Redcoats (complete with German Hessians). Many Afghans welcomed us, when our numbers were small. Now we’re just another offensive occupier.
- Our Army’s wearing out. We speak of sending 40,000 more troops as if they were just 40,000 widgets. But we now have service members who’ve spent half or more of the past eight years deployed—and not just special operators. Troops wear out, too. The performance of our men and women in uniform has been superb, but we’re finally starting to lose the crucial mid-career leaders essential to maintaining a quality force. Even the most dedicated soldier wants a life. Troops not only aren’t home long enough to re-master branch-specific skills, they’re not back long enough to date, let alone build a family. Those magnificent 101st Airborne paratroopers in the mini-series “Band Of Brothers” were in a combat zone for less than eleven months, part of which they spent in the rear area. I just interviewed a command sergeant major with 42 months of service in Iraq. When a general asks for more troops, it usually means that he’s out of ideas.
Even if we were to manage, miraculously, to build a modern, friendly state in Afghanistan, what would we get out of it? We’re focusing on terrain and tying ourselves down while at war with a mobile, border-hopping enemy with global aspirations. Afghan dirt is worthless. We need to pursue our enemies, not bind ourselves to meaningless real estate. We need to be more mobile than our enemies. Instead, we’ve bogged ourselves down to no useful purpose.
In warfare, the ultimate objective is always the enemy. Improving agricultural yields for Afghan villagers will not deter al Qaeda’s Arab leadership from attacking us and our interests. We’ve suckered ourselves with vague goals, inept doctrine, and that most dangerous American vulnerability, good intentions.
Get back to killing our mortal enemies, ruthlessly and relentlessly. Use Afghan bases to destroy those enemies, but stop trying to “save” a country most of whose people just want us to leave. Put an end to rules of engagement that only protect our enemies and their supporters, while murdering our troops. Forget being loved. Be feared.
JOHN SUTHERLAND: The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and, according to General Stanley McChrystal, it may become un-winnable soon. General McChrystal has been here before: Afghanistan 2009 is similar to Iraq 2006. Afghanistan isn’t Iraq and every counterinsurgency is unique but there are commonalities that apply when adjusted for local idiosyncrasies. I recommend Option 3, the Double Down approach or "the surge." A surge is the raising of troop levels and, like raising taxes, no one likes it. It is temporary and designed to create a desired effect like a stimulus package. A surge is not a strategy; it’s a component of one in support of a whole government approach.
Strategic Reasoning: The U. S. cannot allow the Taliban to regain Afghanistan and restore a terrorist sanctuary. Change is necessary to build a government that can fend off the Taliban, and thus, Al Qaeda. This is impossible without security. Now is the time to act: politically, militarily, and operationally.
Politically, we’ve never had such broad support both domestically and internationally. The experts support the surge: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates; Generals McKiernan, McChrystal, Petraeus, and Zinni; Senator McCain; UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown; French President Nicolas Sarkozy; Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah. We can add noted authorities David Kilcullen and Frederick Kagan and a slight public majority plus the 28 NATO Defense Ministers. Consensus doesn’t mean correct but it does provide leeway.
Militarily, we have experience and expertise throughout the chain of command. Generals Petraeus and McChrystal commanded during the Iraqi surge and most of our junior leaders have served somewhere in theater before. Unlike in 2006, we have an idea of what works.
Operationally, time is running out. Pakistan has launched an offensive against the Taliban that could compliment operations in Afghanistan. We have the support, the leadership, the experience, and the situation demands action.
Dual Strategy: The Afghan mission must include two mutually supporting pillars: counter terrorism and counter insurgency. It is not viable to separate the two. To offer the Taliban a seat at the table and assume Al Qaeda will not be under the table is naïve.
Operational Environment: The troop numbers now force us to pursue the path of clear-and-hold and return to the FOB. We need to clear-hold-build while training the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) in order to clear-hold-build-and handoff.
What is the Upside? Surge equals commitment and can spark an "Anbar Effect." In Al Anbar the tribes started out as neutral, became hostile and sided with the insurgents, then found they had new masters whose harsh vision alienated them. They then turned to the less intrusive Americans. We’ve got a jump on this in Afghanistan—most Afghanis don’t want the Taliban back.
The most important lesson of the Iraqi surge was that nothing happens without security. We must secure the neutral majority, isolate the resistance, and reconcile the willing while killing those who aren’t. Security buys political maneuver space for the host nation and enables reconciliation, which only works when the insurgents are on the ropes. The conventional surge troops focus on the population while reinforcing Special Operations Forces FID and enabling SOF counter-terror. The best intelligence sensor comes from troops on the ground, among the people. This enhances the SOF mission through sharing, collaboration and ops/intel fusion as seen in Mosul 2004. It also enhances ANSF training and facilitates joint operations that build teamwork, trust and experience.
The Iraq surge triggered a decline in violence. As troop strength goes up, civilian casualties go down, reducing propaganda opportunities. Unlike events caused by Tomahawks, Predators, bombers, or Special Ops, ground events have someone present for key leader engagement and Bomb Damage Assessment verification. Boots on the ground means we get the truth out before the lie.
What has to go right? For an Afghan surge to work the ANSF has to gain confidence, corruption must decrease, and the tribes must join in local defense. The pace of reconstruction has to speed up while projects and money have to move out of Kabul and into the countryside.
How long will it take? The timeline should be condition-based, not politically driven. Benchmarks are established, tracked, and used as "off-ramps" triggering reductions. I assume a 20-month commitment with an option to reduce or extend based the benchmarks. When the Iraq surge achieved the desired effects the drawdown began almost immediately.
How will we know if it’s working? The first sign of success is peace: attacks go down and tribal partnerships go up. The locals provide the U. S. and ANSF with tips and reject the Taliban. We reach the tipping point when our incentives outweigh Taliban intimidation in battle for popular support. In Iraq we knew we were winning when the tribes came to us instead of the insurgents.
What are the downsides / risks? There will be an initial spike in violence that will make things seem worse. The early reads during the Iraq Surge were pessimistic. The troop increase and the rough terrain means there will be more opportunities for an LZ X-Ray or a Dien Bien Phu (to use Vietnam War analogies). We’ll probably have to re-focus the counter-drug effort exclusively on insurgent-connected dealers. We may have to allow the Afghan government to tackle the bigger problem later.
What could go wrong? Any successful large-scale insurgent attack could be disastrous although the Taliban have not demonstrated the ability to form groups of 100 men or more. They generally fight in 20- to 25-man teams. An ANSF “Saigon-style” public execution could also be a disaster – the famous 1968 photo of Saigon Police Chief Loan executing a Viet Cong terrorist became a public relations disaster for South Vietnam. The biggest danger is for a U. S. ground force to create a large civilian casualty event. More troops in close proximity to the population and the enemy is always risky.
Pakistan. The most important event to avoid is an Afghanistan/Pakistan role reversal whereby Afghanistan becomes the safe haven for Taliban forays into Pakistan. With a volatile population and nuclear weapons to boot we need to keep Pakistan secure. Pakistan is having its own Taliban problems and has launched an offensive of its own. A surge might create dual pressure on the Taliban and put Al Qaeda on the run with no place to hide. We’ll have to step up U. S./Pakistani cross-border coordination and help them coordinate strikes on the Taliban in Pakistan.
Iran. Iran doesn’t want a direct confrontation with the U. S. They watched us defeat the Taliban in a few months in 2002 after seeing the Soviets lose earlier. Then they saw us defeat the region’s largest army in a matter of weeks. Next they watched us turn the Iraq insurgency back with the surge of 2007–08. Why hand them hope by allowing Afghanistan to flounder? If we show weakness it will open up an opportunity for the aspiring regional hegemon.
Iran never liked the Taliban. They even were quietly supportive of OEF in 2002. Although they back them now, they would not like to see a Wahhabi regime on their doorstep supporting the anti-Iranian Sunni’s of Baluchistan.
DISCUSSION: OUR EXPERTS REPLY TO EACH OTHER’S STRATEGY ADVICE:
RALPH PETERS’ REPLY TO SUTHERLAND’S STRATEGY RECOMMENDATION: While John’s position is sincere and thoughtful, he’s fighting the last war. Afghanistan just isn’t Iraq. A temporary surge, even of 20 months’ duration, would be insufficient: we’d need to go to stay (and 40,000 troops still would not be a sufficient occupation force). Any remote hope of building a modern Afghanistan would require at least—at least—a generational commitment. Even if it worked, would it be worth the cost?
In Iraq, al Qaeda was a foreign invader whose atrocious behavior ultimately made the organization’s terrorists less appealing than the other “foreign invaders,” so the Iraqis jumped sides for their own self-interest. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s the home team, whose appeal is increasing, not diminishing, as evidenced by its expanding presence throughout much of Afghanistan and its soaring appeal to young recruits.
John writes of buying time for the Afghan government, but the current Afghan government is the problem. Our COIN doctrine stresses legitimacy. The Karzai government is not viewed as legitimate by Afghans. Its corruption empowers the Taliban. Meanwhile, we subsidize and protect and rationalize away drug kingpins, such as Karzai’s brother, the governor and thug-in-chief in Kandahar. Our talk about democracy, development and the rule of law just sounds like hypocrisy to Afghans—who may be uneducated, but aren’t stupid.
Our troops are dying to protect thieves, drug lords and scoundrels in Kabul government ministries. Is that truly what we want our men and women to do?
John also claims that the Taliban cannot muster significant tactical forces. That just isn’t true. In one recent attack on a U.S. outpost, the Taliban, supported by locals, deployed several hundred warriors. Almost a dozen U.S. soldiers died (although they killed over 140 of the attackers). The Taliban are feeling more confident and growing bolder. Meanwhile, “our” Afghans won’t fight.
The Taliban is growing rapidly, despite our eight years of commitment to Afghanistan. Shouldn’t we ask ourselves why?
Nation-building efforts are folly in a fractured, hate-ridden and violent tribal society. Let’s get back to a focus on killing al Qaeda, instead of “protecting” Afghan villagers against their own relatives. We don’t need more troops in Afghanistan. We need more intellectual integrity. No soldier or Marine should die because Washington was too cowardly to ask the tough questions.
JOHN SUTHERLAND’S REPLY TO PETERS’ STRATEGY RECOMMENDATION: Ralph’s Option 1 discussion told us what Lean and Mean is not but not what it is. Lean and Mean is a counter-terror (CT) approach where SOF and air (UAV, TLAM, USAF…) execute surgical strikes to kill or capture terrorists. This is an enemy-oriented approach and our CT guys are the world’s best. Their former boss is General McChrystal and he rejects a CT-centered approach. We can whack-a-mole all day long, but it’s no more a strategy than a surge is.
Why CT won’t work alone. When man-hunting is the only approach you manage to kill the leaders but do not decrease the manpower pool. Given Afghanistan’s warrior ethos, this approach "disrespects" the tribes, displays lack of will to fight and generates "chaosistan." CT is only as effective as the intel—an aspect that is enhanced with more eyes on target. CT generates collateral damage and civilian casualties that angers local non-combatants. Just look at this October 30 headline: Clinton Faces Pakistani Anger at Drone Attacks.
CT + COIN + USG = a Strategy. CT is one leg of a three-legged stool: COIN, CT, and USG. The Lean and Mean troops kill bad guys while the COIN troops secure the neutrals and the diplomats engage the government in a comprehensive approach. Afghanistan is a tough nut but so was Al Anbar.
US Strategic Musts. We must:
- Address our infantry shortage.
- Take USG economic engagement out of Kabul and into the countryside.
- Partner and focus on the locals.
- Get our NATO partners to get out of their bases.
- Accept an Afghanistan confederation versus an American clone.
What we want. We want a government that works for Afghanistan and is not a threat to the U. S. homeland. We don’t want it to be a terrorist Petri dish. We want terrorists dead or captured and a host nation that allows us to operate from their territory.
What we don’t want. We don’t want to become the Soviets flattening civilians, mining roads, while forcing a government on them. We don’t want a stateless state (Somalia) where we hand out aid while killing bad guys. Terrorist don’t need a sponsor when there’s no government.
Weigh-in on this discussion!
Now that you’ve seen what our two experts have to say about this subject, Armchair General invites you to weigh-in and join the discussion on this important national security strategy issue by offering your own comments and opinions. Click here to go to the ACG World Terrorism and War in Afghanistan Forum thread on America’s Afghanistan strategy options, share your comments, and read what others have to say. Or, you can simply leave a comment below.