Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghan National Security Forces

Strategy, Not Politics, Should Dictate Troop Levels

The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.

As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.

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The press continues to be full of leaks about the administration’s troop drawdown plans in Afghanistan. The latest is this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reports that, at the White House’s insistence, the Pentagon has offered troop options post-2014 lower than those favored by General John Allen, the commander on the ground. His options call for between 6,000 and 15,000 troops (some other accounts have suggested his top-end figure is 20,000). The new set of options: 3,000, 6,000, or 9,000 troops.

As the Journal notes, this is part of a continuing decrease in the size of forces envisioned for Afghanistan: “In late 2010, some senior administration and defense officials told NATO allies that the U.S. may need to keep at least 40,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014, when the current NATO mission concludes. A year later, officials suggested troop levels could be closer to 20,000. As recently as November, Gen. Allen spoke privately with Pentagon chiefs about the need for 15,000 troops from the U.S. alone.” But now the administration seems to be leaning toward cutting the current force by more than half this year (from 66,000 to 30,000 or so) and leaving perhaps 6,000 or even fewer troops post-2014. And as U.S. troop number decreases, so do those of our NATO allies: nobody is going to do more than we are.

Why the decrease? If you believe administration spokesmen, it’s because the Afghan National Security Forces are performing far better than expected and the security situation is far better than envisioned. If that were indeed the case, I, too, would favor keeping substantially fewer troops: drawdowns should be conditions-based. But conditions on the ground are not rosy enough to permit massive troop decreases.

True, there have been some encouraging trends–according to official NATO figures, enemy-initiated attacks fell 7 percent during the January-November 2012 period compared with the same months in 2011. But enemy attacks were rising as recently as May and June and overall attack levels are still higher today than they were when the surge began in 2009.

While Taliban fighters have been routed out of many strongholds in Helmand and Kandahar Provinces, they have proven resilient thanks to their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and similar progress has not been seen in the eastern part of the country. There are still Haqqani sanctuaries located only an hour’s drive from Kabul–and that is with 66,000 U.S. troops still in the country.

While the ANSF are more capable than before, their ability to hold onto, and expand, recent gains without substantial support is highly questionable. The Defense Department’s own “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan” notes that the ANSF still have considerable deficiencies in areas such as logistics, planning, and air support that will require coalition backstopping for a long time to come; Afghanistan will not even have a functioning air force until 2017 at the earliest.

In reality, the gains that have been made are extremely fragile and dependent on massive U.S. support. Pull that support and there is considerable risk of the Taliban once again extending their control to the gates of Kabul. There is, quite simply, no reason to imagine that Afghanistan could remain reasonably secure with 6,000 or fewer U.S. troops remaining post-2014.

That is why General Allen has recommended a higher troop figure. But there is a very real risk that his recommendations will be overridden not for strategic reasons but for political ones.

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Don’t Ignore Afghan Soldiers’ Progress

The dispiriting trend of “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, in which Afghan soldiers or police attack coalition counterparts, continues with two attacks, one of which killed two American soldiers in western Afghanistan. These are the sixth and seventh attacks in the past 11 days, indicating that we are seeing another spate of such attacks similar to the one that occurred early in the spring. In all, as Long War Journal notes, such attacks have accounted for 13% of coalition deaths this year–39 out of 299 fatalities. This is higher than the total (35) claimed in green-on-blue attacks in all of last year.

Such attacks are especially grim because they call into question the loyalty of the Afghan security forces and may lead many on the home front to exclaim in disgust that we should pull out because our purported allies are not just ungrateful but positively anti-American. But keep this in perspective.

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The dispiriting trend of “green on blue” attacks in Afghanistan, in which Afghan soldiers or police attack coalition counterparts, continues with two attacks, one of which killed two American soldiers in western Afghanistan. These are the sixth and seventh attacks in the past 11 days, indicating that we are seeing another spate of such attacks similar to the one that occurred early in the spring. In all, as Long War Journal notes, such attacks have accounted for 13% of coalition deaths this year–39 out of 299 fatalities. This is higher than the total (35) claimed in green-on-blue attacks in all of last year.

Such attacks are especially grim because they call into question the loyalty of the Afghan security forces and may lead many on the home front to exclaim in disgust that we should pull out because our purported allies are not just ungrateful but positively anti-American. But keep this in perspective.

There have been approximately 31 such attacks this year (not all result in casualties, others cause multiple fatalities), mostly carried out by lone wolfs, roughly half of them Taliban infiltrators, the others simply disgruntled personnel. The entire Afghan National Security Forces are roughly 350,000 strong. So only 0.009% have attacked coalition counterparts this year. The rest of the ANSF, especially the army, is growing in strength and competence. They are, in fact, suffering higher casualties than coalition forces as they fight the Taliban. As General Jim Mattis, head of Central Command, told Congress: “No force is perfect. I would just remind everyone that even Jesus of Nazareth had one out of 12 go to mud on him.” He noted: “We should not allow a few criminals, malcontents, to define the Afghan security forces…. This is a force that’s come a long ways.”

That is an admonition worth heeding.


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Re: Getting to “Yes”

Fred and Kim Kagan write, “When McChrystal took command of the Afghan war in June, the White House made it clear that he was expected to make dramatic progress within a year — by the summer of 2010.” But the White House has dropped the ball:

The White House has not done its part to allow General McChrystal to meet its own deadline. It was slow to receive and act on the assessment he sent, and it deliberately refused even to review his force recommendations for weeks after they were complete. In the intervening months the White House has held a series of seminars on Afghanistan and the region that should have been conducted before the new strategy was announced in March.

They then list a series of critical steps — from expanding Afghan National Security Forces to supporting ongoing operations in Helmand — which could have already been underway if not for the excruciatingly extended debate taking place in the White House. While we have been dithering, “the enemy has not been idle,” they explain:

Taliban forces throughout the south have been preparing themselves to meet an expected American counter-offensive. They have refined their propaganda messaging both within Afghanistan and toward the U.S. They have also taken advantage of the flawed presidential elections to expound their own political vision for the country and start actively competing with the government for legitimacy.

After delaying and equivocating, the president must, soon we are promised yet again, announce the policy, quiet the critics, regain the confidence of our allies and the Afghanistan government, and impress on the enemy that we really do mean business. This is not impossible, but he and his advisers — egged on by the ever-on-the-wrong-side Joe Biden — have made it much harder. Next time, perhaps they’ll keep Biden and the political consultants away from serious issues of national security.

Fred and Kim Kagan write, “When McChrystal took command of the Afghan war in June, the White House made it clear that he was expected to make dramatic progress within a year — by the summer of 2010.” But the White House has dropped the ball:

The White House has not done its part to allow General McChrystal to meet its own deadline. It was slow to receive and act on the assessment he sent, and it deliberately refused even to review his force recommendations for weeks after they were complete. In the intervening months the White House has held a series of seminars on Afghanistan and the region that should have been conducted before the new strategy was announced in March.

They then list a series of critical steps — from expanding Afghan National Security Forces to supporting ongoing operations in Helmand — which could have already been underway if not for the excruciatingly extended debate taking place in the White House. While we have been dithering, “the enemy has not been idle,” they explain:

Taliban forces throughout the south have been preparing themselves to meet an expected American counter-offensive. They have refined their propaganda messaging both within Afghanistan and toward the U.S. They have also taken advantage of the flawed presidential elections to expound their own political vision for the country and start actively competing with the government for legitimacy.

After delaying and equivocating, the president must, soon we are promised yet again, announce the policy, quiet the critics, regain the confidence of our allies and the Afghanistan government, and impress on the enemy that we really do mean business. This is not impossible, but he and his advisers — egged on by the ever-on-the-wrong-side Joe Biden — have made it much harder. Next time, perhaps they’ll keep Biden and the political consultants away from serious issues of national security.

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