The case for an enduring mission in Afghanistan


Denying al Qaeda's re-emergence in Afghanistan requires ensuring that Afghanistan can be sufficiently stable and capable of defending itself, as President Barack Obama explained during the surge announcement at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. Al Qaeda is not present in large numbers (perhaps less than 1,000) in Afghanistan now, but Secretary Leon Panetta stated in November 2012 that "intelligence continues to indicate that they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan as well." The U.S. and NATO cannot allow war weariness and economic conditions to obscure the realities and requirements they face. The recently announced accelerated shift to a "support role" in Afghanistan could become a guise to withdraw if "support" means just a few thousand counterterrorism forces and trainers.

In the eyes of many officials, a sound counterterrorism strategy rests on the assumption that the U.S. and NATO can kill their way toward a better future, against the Taliban and the Haqqanis or against al Qaeda and its affiliates. A decade of war proves the falsehood of this assumption. Experts outside the military are better qualified to determine how best to assist Afghanistan in the areas of governance, economic development, and reconciliation, and how best to move forward in Pakistan. But my experience in accelerating the growth of the Iraqi security forces -- in size, capacity, and confidence -- during the Iraqi "surge" of 2007 to 2008 qualifies me to speak about what is necessary to help the Afghan army succeed in taking lead responsibility.

The Afghans and NATO began a program of accelerated Afghan National Army (ANA) growth in 2009, recognizing that sufficient capacity is still years away. The ANA's combat power is only partially developed. The tip of the ANA's spear, its fighting units, is more developed than its shaft, its enabler capacity. Its human intelligence ability can sense near-term threats, but its capacity to detect and anticipate threats is low. On the ground, it can maneuver well, but the ANA lacks the air and ground mobility to shift forces around the country in order to mass against the enemy. Lack of mobility and its still-developing staff capacity reduce the ANA's ability to apply timely and coordinated force. The ANA can place accurate enough direct fire against the enemy once engaged but has only limited land-based indirect fire ability. Nor does it have adequate air-delivered fires, important in the mountains and remote areas of Afghanistan. Pending medical, supply, maintenance, and transport capacity means that the ANA has limited ability to maintain momentum against the enemy once engaged. Leadership quality varies. All these shortcomings affect the ANA's confidence and combat power; none will be complete by the end of this year or next.

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