The Afghanistan Debate

Oct 9, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

October 9, 2009
Number 10/09 #03

The debate over strategy for Afghanistan, and US President Obama’s consideration of a request for more troops there, continues to rage, especially in the US. (An interesting report on apparent differing military and civilian understandings of the current strategy in Afghanistan in Washington is here.) This Update features some important contributions to that debate.

First up, Michael O’Hanlon, security analyst at the Brookings Institute, argues that Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal, contrary to some critics, was right to make clear his opinion of a change of strategy in Afghanistan. He says the General was objecting to a change from the current counter-insurgency approach – which requires additional troops – to a “counter-terrorism” strategy, focussing only on killing al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives. O’Hanlon points out that not only was McChrystal upholding the current US strategy in Afghanistan, what he had to say was obviously true given the past coalition experience in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For all of the history and detail to back up this argument by O’Hanlon, CLICK HERE. Largely agreeing with O’Hanlon, but offering additional advice and criteria for success in Afghanistan, is academic counter-insurgency specialist Professor Mark Moyar. Also critical of those urging Obama to decline the request for more troops for Afghanistan is the Washington Post in an editorial.

Next up, French philosopher and public intellectual Bernard-Henry Levy reports on his own recent trip to Afghanistan where he visited mainly the French forces stationed there. What he witnessed, he says, “counters what is heard almost everywhere.” He says that the reality of Afghanistan, from what he can see, is that Afghanistan is “An ugly war, like every war; but a just war, less poorly led than is said, and a war that can, with the right choices, be won.” For all of the details to support this description, CLICK HERE. Another account of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan comes from the London Times looking at the violent Helmand province.

Finally, military historians Frederick and Kimberley Kagan look in more detail at the consequences of pursuing the “counter-terrorism” strategy advocated by most of those opposing additional troop commitments to Afghanistan. They particularly criticise the idea that the Afghan Security Forces can rapidly take over the role currently being undertaken by foreign soldiers. And they examine closely the regional effects of a change in strategy, especially vis-a-vis Pakistan and its own Taliban and al-Qaeda problems. For their complete analysis, CLICK HERE. More interesting views in the debate over additional troops for Afghanistan come from former US Secretary of State  Henry Kissinger, British author and analyst David Pryce-Jones, American columnists Reihan Salam and David Ignatius, and American security expert Max Boot.

Readers may also be interested in:

A General Within Bounds

By Michael O’Hanlon

Washington Post, Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has come under fire for making public comments about the war. While answering questions after an Oct. 1 speech — in which he avoided taking sides in the policy debate — McChrystal challenged a popular alternative to the approach that President Obama sent him to Afghanistan to pursue. An op-ed on this page Saturday argued that a battlefield commander should not get ahead of his president in public. Next, national security adviser James L. Jones faulted McChrystal for speaking outside his internal chain of command while the president is reviewing his strategy and basic assumptions about the war.

Certainly, if given a do-over, McChrystal might make different, more nuanced statements; he was indeed too blunt and impolitic. But the criticism goes too far.

The Obama/McChrystal plan is classic counterinsurgency and focuses on protecting the Afghan population while strengthening Afghan security forces and government. McChrystal was asked about a “counterterrorism” strategy that would purportedly contain al-Qaeda with much lower numbers of American troops, casualties and other costs. McChrystal did not try to force the president’s hand on whether to increase the foreign troop presence in Afghanistan. The general critiqued an option that is at direct odds with Obama’s policy and conflicts with the experiences of the U.S. military this decade. That is not fundamentally out of line for a commander.

The past eight years have proven that a counterterrorism option for Afghanistan won’t hold the country together. This approach, the essence of the Rumsfeld “light footprint” concept that dominated most of the Bush presidency, led us to place most American troops in Afghanistan under a separate command from NATO because the Bush administration generally eschewed NATO’s peacekeeping mission. The counterterrorism operation was seen as the critical ongoing role for U.S. forces after the Taliban fell, but by last year its fruits were clear: a resurgent Taliban movement operating effectively in 140 of Afghanistan’s 368 districts; a tenfold increase in the rate of NATO casualties; an al-Qaeda leadership in western Pakistan swearing allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and probably hoping to reestablish a sanctuary in Afghanistan. All of this is laid out in a strategic assessment by McChrystal that has drawn no public faulting. Yet the counterterrorism option that gave us this mess is to be taken seriously?

Perhaps it is acceptable that we consider again abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban and related movements, and trying to limit al-Qaeda’s future role there with long-range airstrikes or the occasional commando raid. But if so, let’s not pretend that Afghanistan will remain intact. The essence of McChrystal’s comment last week was that if we scale back dramatically as envisioned by the counterterrorism approach, Afghanistan would become “Chaos-istan” again. That comment is almost unassailable as far as it goes.

And McChrystal understated his case. The counterterrorism option would probably also fail to kill and capture terrorists; even its immediate goals are likely to be unattainable. As my colleague Bruce Riedel and I, among others, have argued, a counterterrorism option would lead to a loss of crucial human intelligence networks; once NATO forces drew down, the Kabul government would probably fall, and the resurgent insurgents would take revenge on those previously associated with us. Air bases from which we fly unmanned vehicles today over western Pakistan would also be lost, meaning that remote strikes would have to come from ships several hundred miles away. Pakistan’s interest in restraining the Afghan Taliban would probably diminish, as it would rather see that group back in power than an India-friendly regime in Kabul.

Some might agree with all this yet say that McChrystal still had no business wading into policy waters at this moment. It is true that commanders, as a rule, should not do so. But when truly bad ideas or those already tried and discredited are debated as serious proposals, they do not deserve intellectual sanctuary. McChrystal is personally responsible for the lives of 100,000 NATO troops who are suffering severe losses partially as a result of eight years of a failed counterterrorism strategy under a different name. He has a right to speak if a policy debate becomes too removed from reality. Put another way, we need to hear from him because he understands this reality far better than most in Washington.

Many of those criticizing McChrystal wish, in retrospect, that our military command in 2002-03 had been more vocal in opposing Donald Rumsfeld’s planning for the Iraq invasion that assumed a minimal need for post-invasion stabilization forces. This was an unusually bad idea that military leadership went along with, at least publicly, partly out of a sense that they had no prerogative to intercede. The result was one of the most botched operations in U.S. military history until the 2007 surge partially salvaged things.

President Obama has to weigh many complex matters as he assesses Afghanistan, including whether the United States can really redouble its efforts when the Afghan government is falling short on so many fronts. A lesson of Vietnam is that we cannot succeed in this kind of war without a viable domestic partner. Figuring out how to promote a stronger Afghan government that is more accountable to its people, and better placed to defeat the resistance, is critical. But the counterterrorism option is not a viable way to help stabilize Afghanistan. Because Obama called Afghanistan “a necessary war” seven weeks ago, it would have verged on professional malpractice for McChrystal to pretend otherwise.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


Kabul Notes

A journey into Afghanistan

Bernard-Henri Levy

The New Republic, October 6, 2009 | 12:00 am

Return to Afghanistan with a group of journalists, escorted by the French defense minister, Hervé Morin. A limited view: We only see valleys in Surobi and Kapisa. But an invaluable glimpse, nevertheless, because it counters what is heard almost everywhere.

First chapter, Tora, a small fort sitting on stones, some distance from Kabul. Welcome by Colonel Benoît Durieux, leader of the regiment and an intellectual, author of the excellent Rereading Clausewitzs On War. Movement toward Surobi, where an assembly of malik, the sages of the region, waits for us to join a ceremony opening a small school for boys. The number of armored vehicles mobilized for the trip, the extreme nervousness of the men, as well as the low-flying Caracal helicopter that brought us here early this morning, at times hovering only ten meters above the ground–all this leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the threat. But there is also no doubt about the fact that the military’s strategy relies on a simple idea that has little to do with the caricature drawn by my country’s media: to show that we are, of course, there to wage war, but also that the stakes of this war are the security, peace, and access to care and education of a population for whom the coalition is an ally.

Rocco, a base in the heart of the Uzbin Valley, ten kilometers upstream from the place where ten French Special Forces soldiers were killed in August 2008. It is another western encampment, even more isolated and surrounded by mountains. Camping there in tents reinforced with plywood, in preparation for winter, are 159 men. They had just barely set up camp, Captain Vacina tells me, when the elections arrived, as did the Taliban’s bombardment of polling places, the response of the Afghan regular forces supported by these troops, and the incredible spectacle of people from the countryside coming to vote in the midst of bombs and machine gun fire. An occupation force, really? Neo-colonialism, like the useful idiots of Islamo-progressivism say? Armies, like people, have an unconscious, and I do not deny that temptation can exist. But what I see there, for the moment, is this: a military force that has come, literally, to allow people to vote.

Tagab, in the heart of Kapisa province, further north still, is where I come across Colonel Chanson, who, as a young Blue Beret in Sarajevo, remembers having denied me access to Mount Igman 15 years ago. The same mountainous landscape, though at the foot of these mountains there is a green valley infested with armed groups. The base of operation was bombarded yesterday. Two days earlier, a more intense attack provoked a sortie. And the colonel recounted the climb toward the opposite position, the occupation of the ridge, the skirmish with a jihadist combat unit on the way back, the very difficult combat, and, finally, the routing of the attackers. Nejrab, 18 kilometers to the north, also in the Kapisa valley. It is this fourth base that houses the Third Battalion of the Afghan national army, under the command of Colonel Khalili. I recall my recommendation in my 2002 Afghanistan report commissioned by then–French President Jacques Chirac: Aid the building of a national Afghan army and allow it, as soon as possible, to assume responsibility for isolating, and then defeating, the neo-fascist Taliban.

And now, that is exactly what is happening, if I believe Khalili’s explanations. He’s the one ultimately responsible for the sorties. He is the one who decides to request–or not–reinforcements from the French battalion. And also under his command are the notorious American “advisers.” Once again, the opposite of the cliché. Once again, the inverse of the accepted image of a Franco-American war in which Afghans are only bit players. Bagram, finally. The U.S. base in Bagram. The terrible secret prison, impossible to approach, 200 meters from where I am. And the 42 men of the French Harfang detachment who are in charge of two drones, piloted on the ground by navigators trained on Mirage jets and furnishing the troops with all the information likely to reduce the risks of their operations. The “low-intensity” conflict whose result, as everyone well knows, is never only military. I didn’t see everything, of course. But what I did see is this: An ugly war, like every war; but a just war, less poorly led than is said, and a war that can, with the right choices, be won.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is the author of Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Translated from French by Sara Phen


Don’t Go Wobbly on Afghanistan

President Obama was right in March

by Frederick W. Kagan & Kimberly Kagan

The Weekly Standard, 10/12/2009, Volume 015, Issue 04

“To defeat an enemy that heeds no borders or laws of war, we must recognize the fundamental connection between the future of Afghanistan and Pakistan–which is why I’ve appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke .  .  . to serve as Special Representative for both countries.”

That “fundamental connection” between Afghanistan and Pakistan was one of the important principles President Obama laid out in his March 27, 2009, speech announcing his policy in South Asia. It reflected a common criticism of the Bush policy in Afghanistan, which was often castigated as insufficiently “regional.” It also reflected reality: The war against al Qaeda and its affiliates is a two-front conflict that must be fought on both sides of the Durand Line.

Now, however, some of the most vocal supporters of the regional approach are considering–or even advocating–a return to its antithesis, a purely counterterrorism (CT) strategy in Afghanistan. Such a reversion, based on the erroneous assumption that a collapsing Afghanistan would not derail efforts to dismantle terrorist groups in Pakistan, is bound to fail.

Recent discussions of the “CT option” have tended to be sterile, clinical, and removed from the complexity of the region–the opposite of the coherence with which the administration had previously sought to address the problem. In reality, any “CT option” will likely have to be executed against the backdrop of state collapse and civil war in Afghanistan, spiraling extremism and loss of will in Pakistan, and floods of refugees. These conditions would benefit al Qaeda greatly by creating an expanding area of chaos, an environment in which al Qaeda thrives. They would also make the collection of intelligence and the accurate targeting of terrorists extremely difficult.

If the United States should adopt a small-footprint counterterrorism strategy, Afghanistan would descend again into civil war. The Taliban group headed by Mullah Omar and operating in southern Afghanistan (including especially Helmand, Kandahar, and Oruzgan Provinces) is well positioned to take control of that area upon the withdrawal of American and allied combat forces. The remaining Afghan security forces would be unable to resist a Taliban offensive. They would be defeated and would disintegrate. The fear of renewed Taliban assaults would mobilize the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras in northern and central Afghanistan. The Taliban itself would certainly drive on Herat and Kabul, leading to war with northern militias. This conflict would collapse the Afghan state, mobilize the Afghan population, and cause many Afghans to flee into Pakistan and Iran.

Within Pakistan, the U.S. reversion to a counterterrorism strategy (from the counterinsurgency strategy for which Obama reaffirmed his support as recently as August) would disrupt the delicate balance that has made possible recent Pakistani progress against internal foes and al Qaeda.

Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, army chief of staff General Ashfaq Kayani, and others who have supported Pakistani operations against the Taliban are facing an entrenched resistance within the military and among retired officers. This resistance stems from the decades-long relationships nurtured between the Taliban and Pakistan, which started during the war to expel the Soviet Army. Advocates within Pakistan of continuing to support the Taliban argue that the United States will abandon Afghanistan as it did in 1989, creating chaos that only the Taliban will be able to fill in a manner that suits Pakistan.

Zardari and Kayani have been able to overcome this internal resistance sufficiently to mount major operations against Pakistani Taliban groups, in part because the rhetoric and actions of the Obama administration to date have seemed to prove the Taliban advocates wrong. The announcement of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces would prove them right. Pakistani operations against their own insurgents–as well as against al Qaeda, which lives among those insurgents–would probably grind to a halt as Pakistan worked to reposition itself in support of a revived Taliban government in Afghanistan. And a renewed stream of Afghan refugees would likely overwhelm the Pakistani government and military, rendering coherent operations against insurgents and terrorists difficult or impossible.

The collapse of Pakistan, or even the revival of an aggressive and successful Islamist movement there, would be a calamity for the region and for the United States. It would significantly increase the risk that al Qaeda might obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan’s stockpile, as well as the risk that an Indo-Pakistani war might break out involving the use of nuclear weapons.

Not long ago, such a collapse seemed almost imminent. Islamist groups operating under the umbrella of the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP), led by Baitullah Mehsud until his recent death, had occupied areas in the Swat River Valley and elsewhere not far from Islamabad itself. Punjabi terrorists affiliated with the same group were launching attacks in the heart of metropolitan Pakistan.

Since then, Pakistani offensives in Swat, Waziristan, and elsewhere have rocked many of these groups back on their heels while rallying political support within Pakistan against the Taliban to an unprecedented degree. But these successes remain as fragile as the Pakistani state itself. The TTP and its allies are damaged but not defeated. Al Qaeda retains safe-havens along the Afghan border.

What if the United States did not withdraw the forces now in Afghanistan, but simply kept them at current levels while emphasizing both counterterrorism and the rapid expansion of the Afghan security forces? Within Afghanistan, the situation would continue to deteriorate. Neither the United States and NATO nor Afghan forces are now capable of defeating the Taliban in the south or east. At best, the recently arrived U.S. reinforcements in the south might be able to turn steady defeat into stalemate, but even that is unlikely.

The accelerated expansion of Afghan security forces, moreover, will be seriously hindered if we fail to deploy additional combat forces. As we discovered in Iraq, the fastest way to help indigenous forces grow in numbers and competence is to partner U.S. and allied units with them side by side in combat. Trainers and mentors are helpful–but their utility is multiplied many times when indigenous soldiers and officers have the opportunity to see what right looks like rather than simply being told about it. At the current troop levels, commanders have had to disperse Afghan and allied forces widely in an effort simply to cover important ground, without regard for partnering.

As a result, it is very likely that the insurgency will grow in size and strength in 2010 faster than Afghan security forces can be developed without the addition of significant numbers of American combat troops–which will likely lead to Afghan state failure and the consequences described above in Afghanistan and the region.

The Obama administration is not making this decision in a vacuum. Obama ran on a platform that made giving Afghanistan the resources it needed an overriding American priority. President Obama has repeated that commitment many times. He appointed a new commander to execute the policy he enunciated in his March 27 speech, in which he noted: “To focus on the greatest threat to our people, America must no longer deny resources to Afghanistan because of the war in Iraq.” If he now rejects the request of his new commander for forces, his decision will be seen as the abandonment of the president’s own commitment to the conflict.

In that case, no amount of rhetorical flourish is likely to persuade Afghans, Pakistanis, or anyone else otherwise. A president who overrules the apparently unanimous recommendation of his senior generals and admirals that he make good the resource shortfalls he himself called unacceptable can hardly convince others he is determined to succeed in Afghanistan. And if the United States is not determined to succeed, then, in the language of the region, it is getting ready to cut and run, whatever the president and his advisers may think or say.

That is a policy that will indeed have regional effects–extremely dangerous ones.

Frederick W. Kagan, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI. The project’s recent report on likely enemy reactions to U.S. strategy options in Afghanistan is available at www.understandingwar.org and www.criticalthreats.org. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.


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