Commentary Magazine


Topic: General John Allen

Chuck Hagel and Afghanistan

Much of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel has focused on his views on Israel and Iran. I’m more worried, at least in the short term, about his views on Afghanistan.

When it comes to making policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran, Hagel will be only one voice among many in the administration’s top-level “principals” meetings. Those are not primarily defense issues. But the war in Afghanistan is a matter where the secretary of defense has a disproportionate voice.

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Much of the controversy over the nomination of Chuck Hagel has focused on his views on Israel and Iran. I’m more worried, at least in the short term, about his views on Afghanistan.

When it comes to making policy vis-à-vis Israel and Iran, Hagel will be only one voice among many in the administration’s top-level “principals” meetings. Those are not primarily defense issues. But the war in Afghanistan is a matter where the secretary of defense has a disproportionate voice.

The fact that President Obama launched a surge in 2009 is probably due, in no small measure, to the influence of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates who, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, backed up General Stanley McChrystal’s request for more troops. Even so, Obama was so reluctant that he added a time limit onto the surge and sent fewer troops than McChrystal had requested. But odds are he would have done a lot less were it not for the support that Gates provided for his commander’s request.

Today we are facing another troop debate over Afghanistan: How quickly will we remove the 66,000 troops there now and what size residual force will we leave behind after 2014? If news reports are accurate, General John Allen, the top commander in Kabul, is pushing to retain as many forces as possible into 2014 and then to keep as many as 20,000 troops after 2014. But the White House–read: the president–is clearly uncomfortable with leaving that many troops behind and has pushed for lower estimates from the Pentagon. Anyone want to bet what advice Secretary of Defense Hagel would provide to President Obama about the speed and extent of a drawdown?

In this regard it is instructive to read news accounts such as this one, which report: “The choice of Mr. Hagel, the first Vietnam veteran to be nominated for the post, would add a prominent Republican to Mr. Obama’s cabinet, providing some political cover for the president’s plans to exit Afghanistan and make cuts to a military budget that has roughly doubled since the 2001 terrorist attacks.” It is instructive also to read editorials such as this one in the New York Times, which advocates bringing all the troops home this year and leaving no force in 2013 much less after 2014. That is where the president’s most liberal supports are at the moment on the war that they once argued was the “good war,” the “necessary war,” unlike the “war of choice” in Iraq.

Is it where the president is? I doubt that Obama will try to bring all the troops home this year, but he may very well bring them all home by the end of 2014, or at the very least leave behind a tiny, ineffectual residual force after 2014. A centrist secretary of defense who endorsed the views of his generals might very well try to argue Obama out of such a position. Odds are that Hagel wouldn’t. With his own record of service as an non-commissioned officer in Vietnam (it may be relevant to note that many NCOs have a low opinion of commissioned officers, especially those with lots of stars on their shoulders), Hagel might very well discount the advice of the officers who know Afghanistan best and instead opt for the position that the White House favors. That could very well be the reason why Hagel is being picked in the first place. If I were an Afghan who cared about the future of his or her country, I would be very worried right now.

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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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