The South Asia Channel

What a CT mission in Afghanistan would actually look like

By Austin Long In a recent USA Today op-ed, Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon make the case that a reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan focused only on counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda won’t work. Both men have considerable stature and experience, with Riedel recently heading up a major review of policy in the region for ...


By Austin Long

In a recent USA Today op-ed, Bruce Riedel and Michael O’Hanlon make the case that a reduced U.S. presence in Afghanistan focused only on counterterrorism missions against al Qaeda won’t work. Both men have considerable stature and experience, with Riedel recently heading up a major review of policy in the region for the Obama administration. Yet after numerous personal discussions and debates over the past few weeks with everyone from U.S. military officers to some of the most prominent scholars of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency, I am firmly convinced that a shift to a “small footprint” counter-terrorism mission is not only possible but will best serve U.S. national security. To use a military term of art, the bottom line up front is that the United States could successfully transition to an effective small footprint counterterrorism mission over the course of the next three years, ending up with a force of about 13,000 military personnel (or less) in Afghanistan.

But most of the discussion about what a counterterrorism posture would actually look like on the ground has been vague. Riedel and O’Hanlon sum it up as “a few U.S. special forces teams, modern intelligence fusion centers, cruise-missile-carrying ships and unmanned aerial vehicles.” No one has attempted to put flesh on this skeleton in terms of numbers and locations of U.S. troops, so I’m proposing the following as a possible small footprint counterterrorism posture.

First, this posture would require maintaining bases and personnel in Afghanistan. Three airfields would be sufficient: Bagram, north of Kabul, Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, and ideally Kandahar, in the insurgency-ridden south of the country. This would enable forces to collect intelligence and rapidly target al Qaeda in the Pashtun regions where its allies would hold sway. Kandahar, in the heart of Taliban territory, might be untenable with a reduced U.S. presence, so an alternate airfield might be needed, potentially at Shindand, though this would not ideal.   

In terms of special operations forces, this posture would rely on two squadrons of so-called “Tier 1” operators, one at each forward operating base. These could be drawn from U.S. special mission units or Allied units such as the British Special Air Service or Canada’s Joint Task Force 2. In addition, it would require a battalion equivalent of U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy SEALs, U.S. Marine Special Operations Companies, British Parachute Regiment, or some mix, with basically a company with each Tier 1 squadron and one in reserve at Bagram. These forces would work together as task forces (let’s call them TF South and TF East), with the Tier 1 operators being tasked with executing direct action missions to kill or capture al Qaeda targets while the other units would serve as security and support for these missions. In addition, two of the four battalions of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, basically one at each airfield, would be used to provide helicopter transport, reconnaissance, and fire support for the task forces. One battalion might be enough but two certainly would, thus ensuring that no targets get away for lack of lift. Note that according to Sean Naylor’s reporting my direct action task forces are structured like the regional task forces in Iraq in 2006 that were tasked to hunt al Qaeda in Iraq.

Both task forces would be capable of acting against targets elsewhere in the Pashtun regions, but al Qaeda operatives would likely only feel even relatively secure in a fairly limited geographic area.  TF East in Jalalabad would likely need to operate principally in the heartland of the Haqqani militant network (Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces) as this would be where al Qaeda’s principal ally in the east could best protect its members, who are not generally Pashtun. For similar reasons, TF South would principally operate against al Qaeda targets in Kandahar, where the Quetta Shura Taliban is strongest, and some of the surrounding provinces such as Helmand and Uruzgan.

In addition to these two task forces, I would retain the three Army Special Forces’ battalions and other elements that appear to be assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. While TFs South and East would focus purely on direct action, these Special Forces units would partner with local forces to collect intelligence and secure specific areas. These local forces would in many cases be from non-Pashtun ethnic groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras), which would limit their ability to be effective in the Pashtun areaa but would likely include at least a few Pashtun tribes that see more benefit working with the Afghan government and the United States than against them. Rather than serving an offensive purpose against al Qaeda like TF South and East, Special Forces would essentially serve a defensive purpose to secure Afghan allies and reassure them that the United States is not going to abandon them.

This reassurance and support of local allies is a crucial and underappreciated part of a small footprint posture. The non-Pashtun groups were the United States’ critical allies in 2001 and remain staunchly opposed to the Taliban and other militants. The Tajiks of the Panjshir Valley, for example, are probably more anti-Taliban than the United States is. With U.S. support, these groups will be able to prevent the expansion of militants outside Pashtun areas. Local allies in Pashtun areas will enable collection of intelligence to support the task force operations. Supporting local allies does not mean abandoning the Afghan government any more than supporting local allies in the Awakening movement in Iraq’s Anbar province meant abandoning the government of Iraq. Balancing the two will require some deftness and will be the focus of another post.

Finally, a few more “enablers,” to use another military term of art, would be required. First, this posture would need some additional special operations personnel focused on intelligence collection, along with a substantial complement of intelligence community personnel to collect both human and signals intelligence. Second, it would require a substantial complement of unmanned aerial vehicles including Predators, Reapers, and a few other specialized types along with their support personnel. Third, a few AC-130 gunships for air support would be needed, along with combat search and rescue teams from Air Force Special Operations Command.

It should be clear that “small footprint” is a relative term. This special operations posture alone would be roughly five battalions of ground forces, four aviation squadrons, and a few odds and ends, probably in the neighborhood of 5,000 U.S. and NATO troops. In addition, a conventional force component would be needed to serve as a quick reaction force, provide security for the bases, and protect convoys. A conservative estimate for this force would be a brigade or regimental combat team, giving a battalion to each base, another 4,000, roughly. For additional air support, two squadrons of fighter-bombers (F-15E, A-10, etc.) would probably be sufficient, adding another 2,000 personnel.

Finally, my proposed posture would require additional staff, logistics, and support personnel (medical for instance), some but not all of which can be contractors, adding another 2,000 military personnel. This would be a total force of about 13,000 military personnel and some number of supporting intelligence community personnel and contractors. This is a high-end estimate, and some military personnel I have spoken to think this mission could be done with half this number of troops, but the posture described above errs on the side of caution. This is small compared to the current posture in Afghanistan, smaller still than the forces implied in Gen. McChrystal’s report, and tiny compared to the peak number of forces in Iraq. On the other hand, it is vastly larger than any other purely counterterrorism deployment, and how we get there from here will be the subject of my next post.

Austin Long is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of
International and Public Affairs and co-author with William Rosenau of The
Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency
(RAND, 2009).


Austin Long is assistant professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.