The South Asia Channel

Putting the Afghans in charge

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that the United States would take a step back from its combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013.  Newspapers and news shows alike are reporting that this is a major milestone towards ending our decade long war in this troubled country. This is a significant announcement – ...


On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that the United States would take a step back from its combat role in Afghanistan by mid-2013.  Newspapers and news shows alike are reporting that this is a major milestone towards ending our decade long war in this troubled country.

This is a significant announcement – but not for the reasons that one might think.

At the strategic level (where heads of state, Foreign Ministers and 4-star generals play), Secretary Panetta’s pronouncement will shock no one.  His statement gives voice to what the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) is already doing, namely taking the steps needed to end their mission in Afghanistan on 31 December 2014.  To get from here to there, ISAF will transfer lead security responsibility to the Afghans at the Province and District level in a measured fashion – a process that is already underway.  In other words, NATO is already "pulling back" from combat operations.

Where this statement will have impact is – oddly – at the tactical level, where U.S. Combat Brigade Commanders will be compelled to stop taking the lead in fighting the enemy and instead support their Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) counterparts as they assume battlefield responsibility.

And this is important. It may mean the difference between winning and losing.

Left to their own devices, U.S. Army and Marine Colonels – Brigade Commanders in charge of 3,500 men and often given responsibility for one or more of Afghanistan’s 34 Provinces – will relentlessly hunt down the Taliban (or Haqqani Network, etc), only nominally bringing their Afghan partners into the process. 

And why should they?  After all, their bosses usually made them responsible for security, governance, development, and rule of law – rating them on the progress that they make in their "battle space." 

To support the efforts of the ANSF instead would require a Brigade Commander to assume risk, as the ANSF:

– may not be there in great numbers;

– may be lead by corrupt or incompetent leaders;

– may not have the staff or battlefield processes to conduct full scale military, police, and civilian operations across the area of a province;

– may not be exceptionally proficient at military or police operations.

The list goes on and on.

So rather than risk failure (and soldiers hate to fail) many (not all) commanders take on the responsibility of fixing and doing everything themselves.

Don’t get me wrong – the Afghans are there – but the weight of success or failure seemingly rests on the back of the U.S. commander.

The problem with this is that if the U.S. Brigade Commander succeeds, he also fails. 

Because in this counterinsurgency, the only way you ever really move towards a "win" is if you enable the Afghans in their efforts to foster security, governance, development and the rule of law in a way that makes their efforts sustainable – meaning that after we leave, the Afghans can secure their gains and hopefully make even more progress.

But to do that, you have to back away and put the ANSF and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) in the lead. You have to let them feel the weight of the responsibility of success or failure.  You cannot do it for them.

And that is why Secretary Panetta’s statement is important.

In the coming year, field commanders will be told that their main responsibility is not to ensure that "they" make progress in "their" province, but rather that they support their ANSF and GIRoA counterparts’ progress.  U.S. units will go from being supported by the Afghan military to supporting the Afghan military. 

Nuanced? Sort of.  But to a military commander, this results in a change of mission and a change in mindset.

As an example, it will affect how a commander prepares his forces for their mission in Afghanistan. Instead of conducting pre-deployment training that focuses on unilateral or even partnered combat and counterinsurgency operations, the commander will have to get serious about training for Security Force Assistance (SFA), a mission set that involves training, advising and assisting the military and police forces of a Host Nation.

We may even start to see units arrive in Afghanistan that have been cobbled together to conduct SFA.  These units might include officers and enlisted men who speak Dari or Pashtu and are experienced in training Host Nation forces and delivering critical enablers such as air support, medical evacuation and advanced communications.  (Sadly, the spadework necessary to determine what an effective Advisory and Assistance element will look like has not yet been done.  There are some models in practice that are less than optimal; and there are some rather good ideas floating around out there; but the SFA model that will best allow the coalition to manage the transition from combat to an advisory and assistance role has yet to be solidified.  Expect added pressure to the Department of Defense to figure this out in the wake of Secretary Panetta’s proclamation.)

To be sure, there are commanders out there who get it.  At the strategic level, General Allen, the Commander of ISAF, and his team certainly do.  And at the tactical level, I can point to old hands like former Task Force Yukon’s commander COL Mike Howard and newer ones like Task Force Duke’s COL Chris Toner (both of whom patrolled the environs of Khost Province near the Afghan/Pakistan border) who have taken the steps needed to make sure that the Afghans in their area of operations are prepared to take the lead.  But not all have changed the cognitive gears necessary to ensure ANSF and GIRoA success.

So at the end of the day, the Secretary’s announcement may not seem like news to a lot of people who live and breathe Afghanistan.  But his statement is welcomed in that it requires a needed change of mindset for those Brigade Commanders who will be tasked with making strategic statements work at the tactical level.

Roger D. Carstens is a retired Special Forces officer who served in Afghanistan from 2009 – 2011 as the Senior Civilian Advisor on the COMISAF Advisory and Assistance Team.

<p> Roger D. Carstens is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. A former Special Forces lieutenant colonel, he is currently conducting research in Somalia. </p>