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By Austin Long In an earlier post, I discussed what a counterterrorism footprint in Afghanistan might look like in terms of forces. This raises the question of how the U.S. could transition to this sort of posture from where we are today, holding aside for the moment whether this force would be effective. It would ...

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577510_091104_soldier22.jpg

By Austin Long

In an earlier post, I discussed what a counterterrorism footprint in Afghanistan might look like in terms of forces. This raises the question of how the U.S. could transition to this sort of posture from where we are today, holding aside for the moment whether this force would be effective. It would not do so overnight -- in fact it would take about three years -- and the way it goes about it will have consequences.


By Austin Long

In an earlier post, I discussed what a counterterrorism footprint in Afghanistan might look like in terms of forces. This raises the question of how the U.S. could transition to this sort of posture from where we are today, holding aside for the moment whether this force would be effective. It would not do so overnight — in fact it would take about three years — and the way it goes about it will have consequences.

First, the Obama administration should embrace the expansion of Afghan security forces, especially the Afghan National Army, called for in the McChrystal Report. It will cost the United States billions of dollars, but even in the current financial climate a few billion is essentially loose change in the U.S. budget (at its peak the Iraq war was costing $10-12 billion per month, compared to some $2 billion per month in Afghanistan). Over the next year, U.S. force levels should stay where they are currently, or perhaps even increase slightly to demonstrate resolve. The year 2010 would be a time of feverish arming and training of Afghan forces while coalition forces hold the line. Then beginning in early 2011 the United States should begin to drawdown its conventional forces as Afghan forces stand up. By the time of the 2012 presidential election, the United States has shifted fully to the posture described above (essentially a 20-month drawdown).

The strategic goal of the above transition is to ensure the survival of an Afghan state while acknowledging that probably 20-30 percent of the country (i.e. much of the Pashtun regions in the south and east) will be under the de facto control of militants. Right now they control about 10-20 percent of the country, so rather than seeking to reverse this control, the approach is to contain it as this will limit al Qaeda’s potential haven to the provinces noted above. The transition will also ensure that the United States has continued access to the bases it needs through reassurance to the government and local allies. Both the government and local allies will also continue to benefit from U.S. aid, further reducing their incentive to turn on the United States.

During this transition, the United States will have to work carefully to continue supporting Karzai’s newly re-elected central government as it builds up local allies. Tying the local allies to the central state in some way would help with this and an expanded Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3) provides a means to do this. AP3 is a newly created program to form local self defense forces in Afghan districts, using U.S. Special Forces as trainers and advisers. A slight shift in emphasis could enable AP3 to be used to build up local forces in non-Pashtun areas such as Panjshir that will act to contain the militants as well as in anti-militant Pashtun areas. Additional aid (i.e. payoffs) could be made available to those participating in the program. Some will argue that this increases the risk of warlordism, which may or may not be true but is also irrelevant to the strategic goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its allies.

The transition will also mitigate the moral hazard endemic to support to counterinsurgency. Put simply, at the moment the United States and its allies are more committed to a stable, democratic Afghanistan than is the Afghan government. The McChrystal report rightly notes the massive problems with corruption and poor governance in Afghanistan that hobble the counterinsurgency effort. Yet as long as we are willing to pour ever more troops into the country, we have no leverage over the government. We cannot, in this circumstance, credibly threaten to cut support. With a transition to a small footprint and the development of local allies, we will clearly signal that the Afghan government has to do more. The transition will, to be clear, not solve this problem but it will at least be a step in the right direction.

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).

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

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

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