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Obama's Afghan Strategy

Posted By McQ • [December 02, 2009]

He said, in 4,579 words what probably could have been said in 500 or so. The 40 minutes were mostly used to justify to the left his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to A'stan.

On the plus side, he made a decision. It took much longer than it should have, and, as I'll cover further on, it isn't a great decision by any means, but he did finally decide to do something.

Using the cadets at West Point as a backdrop (they seemed as enthusiastic about the plan as I am) he told the military that the reason this decision had taken so long is he owed them a clear mission before he sent them into battle. Yet reading through his speech, I'm still not clear as to what the military's mission is.

Certainly at the level of Commander in Chief, you speak in much broader terms when describing a mission, than would a platoon leader getting ready to attack an insurgent stronghold. But there's a point where "broad" is sort of meaningless. The three broad missions I heard enunciated that I assume comprise the Obama strategy are:

1. Deny al Qaeda safe haven.

2. Reverse the momentum of the Taliban

3. Safeguard the Afghan people

The first is counter-terrorism. Joe Biden's ninja and drone strategy. It is, I assume, the reason Obama decided to commit fewer troops than Gen. McChrystal asked for. The second and third are elements of counter-insurgency.

For numbers 2 and 3, we remain - even with the 30,000 new troops - woefully undermanned. Gen. McChrystal will attempt to make the best of his assets, but attempting to reverse the momentum the taliban and safeguard the Afghans are two labor intensive (boots on the ground) roles. Also included in the 3rd mission is the training of a competent Afghan security force.

Obama says these troops will deploy by fastest means possible. Additonally he said:

Let me be clear: there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war.

Well let me be clear - deploying troops to a theater of war takes a long lead time. Preparation and training are key. While it is probably true that there were no calls for deployments before 2010, a 3 month delay means 3 months in which the alerted units are shorted vital training time. And now the deployment cycle is going to be speeded up because he's trying to cover his tail? Guess who suffers to make him look better?

To this point, I've laid out a plausible but complex military mission. But it moves from "plausible and complex" to impossible with this line:

After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

Even getting the deployment cycle initiated as quickly as possible, the troops (most likely 3 BCTs, a Marine MEU, 4,000 trainers and a command and control element of 7,000) will take 12 to 18 months to complete their deployment. So how is this a surge if as the last unit arrives in country as the first leaves?

In fact, that line alone initiates all sorts of questions.

What if the Afghan forces aren't ready? What if the government isn't yet prepared to fulfill its role. What if the Taliban still have "momentum"? He promised a civilian surge as well - concentrating on agriculture. Who will protect them or are they leaving as well?

Afghan Security Forces (ASF) are not going to be ready in 18 months. Certainly we can train the grunts in that period of time to some level of competence. But it is the leadership that is key. You don't develop an NCO corps or an officer corps in that period of time. And it appeared the key to this strategy is standing up a competent ASF capable of defending itself and the country against the Taliban.

Obama claims we'll embed with the Afghan units and fight along side them. But, given that we've announced that we're leaving in 18 months, what if the Taliban decide to sit it out and not engage in battle? They've been fighting since the '80s - what's 18 months to them? Why not wait until we withdraw and then take on a green ASF with its seasoned fighters?

Obama does leave himself a fall-back position later in the speech when he says:

Taken together, these additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.

If I'm a Taliban commander, I take this as a gift from God. He has not only announced the US's strategy for the next 18 months, he's determined mine. The Taliban knows, just as we should, that 18 months is not enough time to train up the ASF into a competent fighting force. The Taliban knows that any COIN strategy is just marking time given this announcement. The people of Afghanistan now know that we will not be there to protect them in 18 months so there is absolutely no incentive to cooperate with us (or the Kabul government) and a huge incentive not too. They certainly know who will be there after our withdrawal and they'll do their level best to reach accommodation with them.

This isn't a plan for success. This is a plan for withdrawal and a strong signal to our enemy that if they play the game for 18 months, they can have Afghanistan.

Ironically, while taking on his detractors Obama claims he's not doing precisely what his plan is doing:

[T]here are those who acknowledge that we cannot leave Afghanistan in its current state, but suggest that we go forward with the troops that we have. But this would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through, and permit a slow deterioration of conditions there. It would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan Security Forces and give them the space to take over.

This plan is all about the maintenance of the status quo while attempting to give the appearance of decisive action. It is certainly not about that. We can argue until the cows come home about the numbers necessary to conduct successful COIN in Afghanistan, but I can assure you no expert would tell you 30,000 are enough. We can give all the lip service we want to saying we're going to train up the ASF to a level they can take over their own defense, but no expert is going to agree that 18 months is enough. Gen. McChrystal can smile and claim he's very pleased with the resources he's been given, but anyone who does an analysis of the missions outlined in the speech know he's been badly short-changed. If we could beam in the 30,000 troops tomorrow along with 10,000 more NATO troops, it still wouldn't be enough to do more than "maintain the status quo" - at least for 18 months.

On the other hand, if I'm the Taliban I'm absolutely exultant about what I've heard. And I'm immediately into planning a disinformation campaign that will paint the rosiest possible picture in 18 months time. Meanwhile, my forces are basically on R&R for duration (or concentrating in Pakistan) while I sit back and wait out the withdrawal. And when that last C-17 is wheels up out of Bagram, I'm headed into Afghanistan in force. Given that speech last night, they must finally believe that Allah truly is on their side now.


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