Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Time to Win or Lose in Afghanistan

Some in the Pentagon want to repeat the Iraq strategy of securing the towns while others want to focus on the border. This war didn’t start yesterday. Why are these questions still being asked?

Next week Barack Obama will become the 44th President of the United States. His immediate focus will be on the economy, Guantanamo Bay, and Afghanistan – he’s going to have a busy first few days.

It’s good news that he wants to make the Afghanistan War the main part of his foreign policy. And it’s better news that VP-elect Joe Biden was in Afghanistan last week with Senator Lindsay Graham, and Senator McCain and Senator Lieberman were there also. When one adds new National Security Council head General James Jones (USMC, ret) and Secretary of Defense Gates to the group, one can say that finally America has an administration that equals its Marines and soldiers in competence.

But within the Pentagon, there is still no clear idea of either the strategy or tactics the Pentagon brass might recommend to their new Commander-in-Chief. So let’s assist these desk-bound bureaucrats and do their job for them.

The debate is as follows:

1 - Some argue that the majority of the build-up should be arrayed along the border with Pakistan, focusing on fighting with militants as they move easily across the rugged terrain.

2 - Others, including General David H. Petraeus, the new Centcom commander, want to see the U.S. copy Petraeus’s Iraq strategy and make Afghanistan’s cities and towns the top priority in protecting civilians from the Taliban and other militants.

3 – There is a Marine strategy known as “Muscular Mentoring” that entails working closely with both the Afghan Army and the local citizenry to bring security, jobs, and confidence in local government. This is is successful but low-key and “non big-picture” – which makes it a non-starter to those back-office Army and Pentagon officers who do their best to avoid real field experience.

President Obama has only a finite time to implement a clear and coherent strategy. The Afghan people are increasingly frustrated in the face of rising violence (and American Air Force killings of civilians). And increasing numbers of Americans believe the war in Afghanistan has been mismanaged and is going badly.

Most everyone agrees that the new strategy needs to focus on controlling the border, security for the locals, and increased training for the totally corrupt Afghan police. But will this work?

The biggest issue is that, unlike the Marine strategy, the Army proposals have no role for local, provincial or the central government in Kabul. Yet this is the Afghans’ country and things need to be done their way. If they don’t stand-up and begin to take control of their own destiny, then for how many generations will American troops stay?

There are about 32,000 U.S. troops today in Afghanistan, with an additional 20,000 -30,000 expected to deploy this year. The current idea is to use the majority of the new troops to safeguard villages and cities, and to send some of the additional forces to the border.

"There is a primacy on securing the population," Army Maj. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, director of operations for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, told the New York Times today. "The approach is to reach out to the population, get into the villages, and separate them from the insurgency."

That’s fine in theory, but will it work? Afghanistan has a bigger population than Iraq, a larger land mass, and is being invaded daily by the Taliban Pakistani’s. The "surge" in Iraq boosted American troop levels to approx 150,000 – this surge will boost the troops in Afghanistan to only 50,000- 60,000.

Additionally, as opposed to Iraq’s Sunni/Shia/Kurd issue, Afghanistan has literally hundreds of isolated tribes who have no allegiance or loyalty to anyone outside of their tribe.

While General Petraeus is loathe to admit it, the Marines and Sheik Sattar were working together months before he announced his ‘surge’ campaign – and there is surely no Afghan equivalent of the charismatic Sheik Sattar.

Iraq was “won” because Sheik Sattar realized that Al Qada in Iraq was a worse threat to them than the Marines – and that by allying with the Marines the Iraqis could mutually rid themselves of AQI. Once Al Qada in Iraq was rooted out of Ramadi, the other Sunni tribes saw the economic boom that resulted and wanted their share of it – and Anbar turned pro-Marine very, very quickly.

This won’t happen in Afghanistan. And to build a strategy based on non-existent leaders and tribes who don’t trust each other is a losing strategy from the onset.

Assuming that American troop levels will stay at the 60,000 level, then the Marine plan to engage the population and the Afghan Army and to empower local government is the only plan that bears a modicum of success.

When local Afghan citizens see that their army and their local government can successfully protect their families, provide some basic services – and, perhaps, a job, then we’ve given them a stake in making their country viable again.

But until then, Afghanistan will continue to burn as the Army and Air Force hunkers down on their huge bases like Bagram and refuse to engage with the locals.

Guest post from weekly contributor Andrew Lubin. For more of his boots-on-the-ground commentary on Afghanistan, listen to today's YourMilitaryLife.com BlogTalkRadio interview of Andrew Lubin.

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