"Afghanistan, Eight Years On" by Jeffrey A. Dressler (RCW Blog)

"Afghanistan, Eight Years On"

By Jeffrey A. Dressler  |  RealClearWorld - The Compass Blog  |  October 7, 2009


This week marks the eighth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Yet, eight years on, the Obama administration is reconsidering first principles for the war effort, despite articulating its goals for the region earlier this year. In March 2009, President Obama said his goals were, “…to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” That was and should still be the current definition of success. According to General Stanley McChrystal, the commander that President Obama appointed to lead the war effort, “…success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.” The strategy is counterinsurgency; the unity of effort can and will be addressed. The commitment and resolve to succeed is the final element, and thus, we await the President’s decision.

While the Obama administration takes the time to evaluate General McChrystal’s suggested counterinsurgency strategy, others in the fold have also weighed in. In the past month, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have both hinted that more troops and more time would be required to succeed in Afghanistan. Perhaps the most significant question for President Obama at this juncture is whether or not his definition of success has changed, and if so, why? Is redefining success a viable option?

According to General McChrystal, the answer is no. Redefining success encompasses a host of options, all of which would require fewer troops and resources. However, the fundamental assumption that anything short of disrupting, dismantling and defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan to prevent the re‐establishment of safe havens for al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups could possibly constitute success is a flawed assumption.

One option that has been vigorously argued for is a counterterrorism strategy that seeks to scale back the American military presence in Afghanistan in order to focus on al Qaeda in Pakistan. The assumption is that Special Forces, or at the very least, Predator UAVs and missiles would be able to strike high-priority targets from afar, or “over-the-horizon” as it is commonly referred. However, this is easier said than done. Identifying key targets requires timely intelligence from a host of intelligence-gathering assets, something that would be increasingly difficult without boots on the ground. Not to mention the fact that this intelligence will be even harder to come by when civilian casualties swell –a likely consequence of an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism approach. In short, “you have to navigate from where you are, not where you wish to be. A strategy that does not leave Afghanistan in a stable position is probably a short-sided strategy,” the General said.

Another option is maintaining the current force structure with an increased emphasis on expanding the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). The thinking goes that increasing the size and capability of the ANSF will allow them to slowly take over for coalition forces and precipitate the withdrawal of combat forces sooner rather than later. However, you can’t transition to the ANSF a security environment that they won’t be able to manage. Casualties will continue to mount and the insurgency will continue to make gains. Furthermore, increasing the capability of the ANSF requires training, not simply within the safety of fortified training centers, but in combat with coalition trainers and mentors. This is where the most valuable training takes place. There is no viable substitute for combating the insurgency head on and taking back the initiative. “The status quo will lead to failure if we wait for the ANSF to grow,” according to the General’s assessment. Although increasing the size and capability of the ANSF is absolutely critical, it in itself is not an exit strategy...

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