A Way Forward in Afghanistan

Second in a series of two on the state of the Afghanistan conflict and what we can do from here


Given the referenced situation in my previous article, Afghanistan Reality will not Bow to Presidential Politics, we are left at the crossroads of determining what the proper path forward for the war in Afghanistan might be.  Recognizing that our current options at the national level are, again, a fixed withdrawal with a continuation of current policies (Obama) versus a somewhat though very imperceptibly less fixed withdrawal with a continuation of current policies (Romney), it is safe to assume that the course to be recommended differs greatly from those “options.”

So we have established that we cannot continue the mission, but just quitting entirely leads to the very real threat of the Taliban retaking control and allowing the same Islamic extremism that caused 9/11 a safe place to train and grow.  What is needed is a mission change; a retrenchment to a realistic and attainable goal that can be fought towards with less unnecessary risk of American lives and less overall cost.  The fact is that we cannot continue to tie our fortunes to a failing local government and weak-kneed allies. 

There are several key adjustments in strategy and mission required.  A true solution does not lend itself to a bumper sticker, so they are detailed:

1)      The mission is to keep the Taliban from developing a stronghold.  It is not to build a government, it is not to pacify areas, it is not to build roads.  It is not anything but preventing Afghanistan, in its relatively lawless state, from being used as a base for future attacks on the United States and its interests.

2)      Troops will no longer embed with Afghan police or military units.  American trainers will assist the Afghan Army in their academies, and missions will be coordinated as necessary with the Afghan military as is necessary, beneficial, and as they are willing.  If the rest of the new strategy is unacceptable to the Afghan government to the point that they are unwilling to accede to these joint actions, then the US military will simply operate independently.  The gain of working with Afghans beyond duly employed and vetted interpreters is not worth the danger of doing so, and discourages any negotiation on this issue.

3)      The rules of engagement will be appropriate with the situation.  Night raids will resume, Americans will take the lead on patrols, mosques will be entered if they are used as bases for the Taliban, and detention of enemy combatants will return to US hands.  No apologies will be issued for legitimate military operations.  Combat missions will all be targeted, with preference for helicopter-based movement.  Drone, helicopter, and fixed wing overflight will monitor the countryside for signs of Taliban infiltration. 

4)      The force footprint will be adjusted to three Brigade Combat Teams (approximately  4,000 troops each), with one based each at the three of the main bases in Afghanistan – Bagram, Kandahar, and Herat, which allows for proper distribution.  They will be supported by two total aviation brigades (attack and transport helicopters) split appropriately amongst the bases, and enough Air Force personnel to provide airlift support to each base along with airfield security, with fixed-wing close air support provided through Air Force fighter and bomber wings, proportionally reduced in size along with ground forces, and Navy carrier-based fighters.  Along with these conventional forces, a proportional amount of special operations personnel would be based in the country for unconventional warfare and high value target raids.  The total size of the force would be around 30,000, about half the current level.

5)      Our allies will all be given the option to withdraw immediately to whatever level they so choose, without any ill will.  Any who remain will allocate as necessary.  The multiple levels of counterproductive international military hierarchy (ISAF, ISAF Joint Command, NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan) will be dissolved and reconstituted around a single commander with a small and reasonable support element.

Once this realignment of mission and force arrayal is complete, one might rationally ask to what effect it is being deployed, what the goals are, what the future looks like, and what the end of the war looks like.

With the forces appropriately realigned and re-missioned, the Taliban must once again be effectively crushed as they were in the course of the initial invasion.  This is entirely possible with a refocused military with a more appropriate set of rules of engagement, as evidenced by how quickly they were crushed in 2001-2002.  Once the ground commanders are confident that the Taliban has been effectively disrupted and dispersed out of the country, likely after 1-2 years from the mission change, all conventional forces can be withdrawn from the country.

Key to this withdrawal would be its conditionality.  We would leave, minus whatever minimal force is negotiated with the Afghan government to assist with training, provide drone overflight, et cetera, but with the commitment that we would continue intelligence and counterterror flights as necessary, and that should the Taliban become resurgent we would recommit ground forces for a fixed period of time.

Now many who see this suggestion would see it as counterintuitive.  To commit to reintroducing combat troops in a more invasion-type scenario seems to imply a higher cost in terms of lives and dollars, along with the stigma associated with “fighting the same war again.”  This, however, is an irrational fear. 

The fact is that the invasion and clearance phase of Operation Enduring Freedom, which for these purposes we will consider to be fiscal year 2002 plus the half month of September 2001, came to about $25 billion inflation-adjusted dollars.  The average annual cost of the occupation phase, meanwhile, comes to $51.3 billion.  The cost in lives is even starker, with 61 US military personnel dying in calendar year 2002 and September-December 2001, against an average of 208 per year for all other years of the war. 

The question then is not if we would rather “win” the war, it is this – is it better to “fight the same war again later,” perhaps a few more times over the course of the next two decades, or is it better to be fighting the same war continuously until “later” arrives?  Any rational student of international relations or security will agree that leaving Afghanistan en masse with no commitment to preventing Taliban resurgence will create a safe haven for potential future terrorist attacks.  So it is not either quit or stay, it is stay and tread water (while gradually sinking), or leave after setting the table for the current Afghan military to have a shot at winning, with the committed and acknowledged ability for our military to again do what they do best: invade the country and crush the enemy, then leave.

So the final question is then, how do we do make this happen?  How do we get such a sea change of strategy and mission, one that would likely offend our Afghan “hosts” and possibly our allies, to occur?  To this, there is a simple answer, and a blunt one: bold, decisive leadership. 

Leadership that takes the hard right over the easy wrong, leadership that recognizes our position as the sole global superpower, and makes decisions that reflect that strength.  Leadership that, while possibly disliked globally, would be respected for its firmness and solidity of judgment.  We have even been given, if one could call frame such a series of tragedies as a positive, the political cover of the spate of insider attacks by Afghan military and police on our personnel, a solid reason that would entirely justify a move away from building the current corrupt Afghan government and towards simply securing the area.

So that is it then.  Leadership.  Will we get it, or will we get more of the same?  Only time and an election will tell.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Chris Day October 23, 2012 at 01:33 PM
Dan: Thanks for the compliments again. You do have a point, in that it would essentially be a take it or leave it scenario. If they leave it, we realistically could not just stay, or we'd be fighting the government forces and the Taliban, which would only help our enemies. That said, if they leave it, we could state for the record, so the international community fully understands, that we will return if the government fails to keep the peace or maintain control. In such a situation, the government would be so weak that they would almost certainly welcome any assistance in clearing the resurgent Taliban. That said, I personally think that if they are thinking clearly, they will see that if we just up and leave the clock immediately starts ticking on their government and their lives. When framed in such a way, it would be difficult for people like President Karzai to say no to a change in strategy. Also, "cooperation" is a matter of degree - are they really "cooperating" when there are dozens of insider attacks, when Karzai repeatedly and publicly opposes our tactics, or says for no reason whatsoever that he would side with Pakistan if we invaded, or calls for the arrest of US Soldiers? None of this is to dispute your point, but to frame it into a broader context.
Don Sutherland October 23, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Chris, I’m leveraging experience in Washington and also the private sector. The circumstances in Afghanistan and Iraq are, in part, a consequence bad risk assessment. British and Soviet experience vividly illustrated Afghanistan’s risks. There, governing authority has long been fragmented along tribal and ethnic lines. An objective analysis could only show that the task of building an effective central government would be difficult and the dangers of insurgency would be great. In Iraq, long-simmering rivalries among the Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, were suppressed under the Hussein dictatorship. There was a classic risk that loss of central authority following Hussein’s fall would unlock those rivalries, perhaps in violent fashion. General Anthony Zinni’s “Desert Crossing” exercise and General Eric Shinseki’s worries about manpower were realistic appraisals. Nevertheless, “best case” scenarios drove the pre-war planning. Given both countries’ realities and the events that unfolded, I’m not inclined to accept seemingly rosy assumptions. I agree that U.S. strategy should focus on ensuring that no faction be permitted to gain a position that would pose a threat to U.S. interests and allies. I don’t agree that the Taliban can easily be “dispersed” with a guerrilla campaign underway and the differing goals of Afghanistan’s neighbors. I do believe that the risks can reasonably be managed with a coherent diplomatic, political, and military strategy.
Chris Day October 23, 2012 at 03:36 PM
Don: I agree with your assessment of the problems that got us into this situation, and similarly set us up for a very hard road in Iraq, but the lessons learned from these failures of judgment have little to do with presenting a positive solution to what we do from here, where we currently find ourselves. I too would agree that the Taliban could not be "dispersed" if they are simply waging a guerrilla campaign. My point about dispersing them is that they would not be waging a guerrilla campaign in such a circumstance. There are dozens of examples of us clearing the Taliban and quite literally dispersing them from entrenched safe zones between the invasion phase and today. I propose we pull back and do just that once again throughout the country, to set the table best we can for the Afghan Army, then leave. In any circumstance where we were to return, it would again be to clear the areas occupied by the Taliban. Again, definitionally, they cannot fight an insurgency in areas they occupy, or use guerrilla tactics if they are defending land they hold - and they have not done so in any case during those various sweeps we have made through Taliban strongholds throughout the years (they have generally stood and fought). The problem has been our continued focus on building a government, which both allows the Taliban to grow due to the failures of that government and a lack of focus on them, and creates targets for them to launch insurgent attacks against.
Don Sutherland October 23, 2012 at 03:36 PM
One other point, Chris. Please know that I respect and thank you for your military service and applaud you for putting forth constructive thoughts aimed at pursuing a better strategy in Afghanistan.
Chris Day October 23, 2012 at 03:50 PM
Don: Thank you for the compliments. I hope you don't think I'm in any way bothered by your questioning or critique. I very much appreciate a reasoned discussion about possible solutions, or about the viability of one possible solution I have proposed. I would hate for anyone to think that just because I have a military background my word is the final word on the subject - this is a discussion for our whole nation to have, and as long as everyone's specific expertise and knowledge they bring to the table is respected, it can be a good discussion.


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