With President Obama consulting top military commanders in anticipation of a major announcement next week on troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, the military narrative of the “Afghan surge” is taking shape. Senior U.S. military and defense officials argue that since it was announced at West Point in December of 2009, the “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops has accomplished two of its primary goals: wresting the strategic southern footholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces from Taliban insurgents, and putting Afghan security forces on a path to assuming the lead in all combat operations in the country by the end of 2014.
The argument by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Afghan war commander Gen. David Petraeus that precipitous troop withdrawals will put those gains at risk, coupled with President Obama’s “err on the side of caution” approach to Afghanistan at virtually every strategic inflection point of his presidency, strongly suggest that next week’s announcement will call for a relatively modest and gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces in the coming year of somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 troops.
“Sometime next week President Obama will announce the beginning of the drawdown of the 'West Point surge,' and General Petraeus is back in Washington working with Defense Secretary Gates and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs] Admiral Michael Mullen, and over the next few days they will meet with the president to discuss what the drawdown slope should be,” said Maj. Gen. Frederick Hodges, head of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff, speaking this week at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Some in Washington have called for a withdrawal of 15,000 U.S. troops by the end of 2011, while Secretary Gates has said the number should be more modest. I suspect the final number will be somewhere in that ballpark. Everyone is in agreement that we don’t want to put the gains of the past year-and-a-half at risk.”
U.S. military leaders are confident the Taliban will fail to re-establish control of Helmand and Kandahar this fighting season. When they were driven out of those strongholds in 2010, the insurgents lost much of their logistical infrastructure in the region, including more than 50 bomb-making factories and hundreds of weapons caches. Perhaps most importantly, senior military sources claim the local populace has turned decidedly against the insurgents and, free of their intimidation, has given allied forces intelligence tips that led to the destruction of much of their logistical infrastructure. The Taliban has retaliated with a campaign of assassinations of politicians and police forces, and bomb attacks on soft civilian targets, but U.S. officials don’t believe they will regain a foothold in the south.
They also claim significant progress has been made in creating Afghan National Security Forces that will be able to transition to operational lead by 2014. Since December 2009, the alliance has increased the size of the ANSF by 100,000 soldiers and police, bringing the total to roughly 300,000, with an ultimate goal of 352,000 by October 2012. NATO’s Afghan training mission has also begun putting in place the recruiting, training, and support infrastructure that will make that force sustainable over time, though it will still require NATO “enablers” such as training, intelligence, communications, and logistics support beyond 2014.
“We test and assess every Afghan security unit we create using various metrics, and I can tell you the combat readiness of Afghan security forces is the best we’ve ever seen,” said Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, commander of NATO’s Afghan training mission, speaking recently at the Brookings Institution. Not only did Afghanistan contribute roughly 50 percent of the security forces that cleared Helmand and Kandahar last year, he said, but U.S. commanders recently identified the first of 84 Afghan infantry battalions as being able to operate independently. “I look at reams of data on their progress, and if the international community stays committed to this then I am absolutely convinced that Afghan Security Forces will be ready to take the lead by the end of 2014.”
Caldwell has also fought two persistent problems since 2009: a 70 percent attrition rate and a 90 percent illiteracy rate among recruits. Today, the Afghan army’s attrition rate has dropped to 30 percent (and is trending downward). Each recruit receives two hours of daily instruction in reading, writing, and math.
Yet from the beginning the Afghan counterinsurgency strategy faced two potential show stoppers, neither of which has been overcome during the “surge”: the need for a marked improvement of the ability of the central government in Kabul to deliver services and win the populace to its side, and denial of insurgent sanctuaries across the eastern border in Pakistan.
On the local level, U.S. military commanders have relearned a lesson of Iraq: Security is the necessary precondition to any progress on the governance or economic front. After the Taliban was largely expelled from the south, they say, governance at the district level has improved markedly as district governors, mayors, and police chiefs have stepped forward to take charge. At the national level, U.S. officials are counting heavily on newly confirmed Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, a hero of the Iraq surge of 2007, to begin addressing the ineptitude and corruption endemic in the administration of President Hamid Karzai. Importantly, Crocker and the international community will need to pave the way for free and fair presidential elections in 2014, which given term limits should spell the end of the Karzai era.
“In any counterinsurgency campaign the people are the center of gravity, but in the realm of governance in Afghanistan power is still exercised primarily by networks of power brokers inside and outside the government, with remarkable influence and ability to impose their will unchecked by a free media, a robust civil society, or an established justice and rule-of-law sector,” said Catherine Dale, an Afghan expert at the Congressional Research Service. “In that scenario, just supporting the Afghan national government can lead you astray because you are trying to build a state on a deeply corrupt foundation.”
If anything, the mission to deny Taliban insurgents sanctuary in Pakistan has been set back by the near rupture in U.S.–Pakistani relations as a result of the U.S. raid to kill Osama bin Laden, who had lived for years in a military garrison town in Pakistan. Since the raid, humiliated Pakistani military leaders have kicked out U.S. trainers in-country. According to U.S. intelligence officials, Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus continues to offer succor and support to Taliban and Haqqani network fighters who are fighting U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan.
“There is a lot of evidence that Pakistan’s ISI continues to provide training, logistics, and intelligence support to the Taliban and Haqqani network, to include tipping them off to the movement of U.S. and coalition forces, undermining coalition operations, and even participating in terrorist attacks such as the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008,” said Arturo Munoz, a long-time CIA analyst now working at the RAND Corporation think tank, speaking this week at a Middle East Institute conference. “My impression is that the ISI considers Al Qaeda a threat to Pakistan, but they don’t consider the Taliban as a threat.”
For the duration of the “surge,” the U.S. has maintained roughly 31,000 troops on the eastern Afghanistan border with Pakistan, fighting what is essentially a holding action against insurgent infiltration while the main effort to clear Helmand and Kandahar continued in the south. The strategy going forward is to transition the “hold” mission in the south largely to Afghan security forces over the next year, shifting U.S. forces and the main effort to the east in the fight against the Haqqani network.
That strategy will test two unproven assumptions: that a determined insurgency enjoying largely uncontested sanctuary can be truly defeated, and that a president facing reelection in a war-and-recession weary America can sustain the political will and strategic patience to see it through.