Small Wars

This Week at War, No. 6

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

General Petraeus’s shopping list for Afghanistan

Yesterday, Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, arrived in Kabul from Pakistan to continue his listening tour in the region. Had Holbrooke arrived the day before, part of his listening tour in downtown Kabul would have included the sounds of exploding bombs and small arms gunfire, as Taliban suicide raiders simultaneously attacked the Justice and Education Ministry buildings, along with the directorate for prisons. At least 20 were killed and 57 wounded in the attacks.

Earlier in the week, General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command and Holbrooke’s partner, spoke at the annual Munich Security Conference. He titled his speech, The Future of the Alliance and the Mission in Afghanistan. In his remarks to an audience heavy with ministers from the NATO alliance, General Petraeus did not elaborate on his speech’s title; he never explicitly linked the outcome of the campaign in Afghanistan to the survival of NATO as a useful military organization. Perhaps on that score, nothing more needed saying.

General Petraeus did offer up a shopping list of what he believes the U.S., European, and Afghan government forces will need to conduct the counterinsurgency campaign he believes will be required to salvage the deteriorating situation. Here is what he asked for:

It is, of course not just additional combat forces that are required. ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] also needs more so-called enablers to support the effort in Afghanistan – more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms and the connectivity to exploit the capabilities they bring; more military police, engineers, and logistics elements; additional special operations forces and civil affairs units; more lift and attack helicopters and fixed wing aircraft; additional air medevac assets; increases in information operations capabilities; and so on. Also required are more Embedded Training Teams, Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams, and Police Mentoring Teams, all elements that are essential to building capable Afghan National Security Forces.

General Petraeus delivered his shopping request to the NATO ministers in the audience. But he no doubt intended his bosses, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and President Obama, to also receive this list and study it.

On Tuesday, in remarks to the Pentagon press corps, Secretary Gates said that President Obama would decide, probably in the course of the next few days, what additional U.S. forces he will send to Afghanistan this year. Secretary Gates also pointed out that President Obama will have to make his decision before the administration completes its formal review of Afghanistan policy, if those additional forces are to arrive in time to be of use this year.

The reality imposed by military logistics planning and by Afghanistan’s weather seem to be trumping the Obama administration’s deliberate planning process. General Petraeus has listed what he requires for a counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. President Obama may have to commit to that campaign before he and his staff have had time to think through the issue.

You really have only one choice

One man who has thought through a strategy for Afghanistan is David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer, in 2007 a top counterinsurgency advisor to General Petraeus in Iraq, and a popular contributor to Small Wars Journal (I took note of Dr. Kilcullen in last week’s post). On Feb. 5th, Kilcullen delivered testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on what America’s strategy should be for Afghanistan.

In his testimony, Kilcullen described Option A, a painful and expensive counterinsurgency and nation-building effort that would likely run for 10 to 15 years. Option B is a narrower strategy focused on counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda.

Kilcullen asserts that Option A, in spite of its costs, is the only plan that will work. He explains that the United States cannot sustain a plan that uses Afghan territory as a forward operating base for counterterrorism missions, while ignoring Afghanistan’s development, governance, and welfare. Kilcullen reminded the committee that counterterrorism operations require useful intelligence to be successful. Without positive interaction with the local populace, Kilcullen argues, there will be little actionable intelligence. Therefore, according to Kilcullen, in order to prevent the eventual re-establishment of a terror sanctuary in Afghanistan, nothing less than a full-blown counterinsurgency and nation-building effort will do.

Readers of Kilcullen’s testimony at Small Wars Journal had some strong reactions to his remarks, both in criticism and in defense.

Does technology make a difference in small wars?

Does any of the Pentagon’s vast spending on technology have much relevance to the dusty, irregular wars America’s infantrymen are now fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq? Secretary Gates himself has demanded that military technologies designed to prevail over the next peer competitor also be useful in small, irregular conflicts.

Big wars against peer threats call for military forces and weapons that can mobilize massive amounts of surveillance and firepower, usually for a limited period of time. Irregular conflict, by contrast, typically requires long periods of persistent surveillance, accompanied by modest amounts of firepower waiting for long periods to be called on short notice. Weapon systems and military organizations designed for one task may not be very effective at the other.

The U.S. Army’s large and expensive Future Combat System (FCS) program was originally designed to provide the Pentagon with a capability to deploy heavy ground combat power over long distances on short notice. In this article at Small Wars Journal, Victor Rosello, a retired U.S. Army colonel, describes how some of the FCS program’s technologies, especially its sensors and communications capabilities, have been adapted to be useful in small, irregular wars.

Similarly, the U.S. Navy is now finding that it has to change some of its techniques and weapons platforms in order to remain relevant. Writing at the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings (subscription required), Lieutenant Commander Kevin Volpe of the U.S. Navy discusses how the Navy needs to change the way it mans and operates its aircraft carriers if the Navy is to better support those infantrymen on patrol in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Previous issues:

This Week at War, No. 5 (Feb. 6, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 4
(Jan. 30, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 3 (Jan. 23, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 2 (Jan. 16, 2009)
This Week at War, No. 1
(Jan. 9, 2009)

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