The South Asia Channel
The case for an enduring mission in Afghanistan
Denying al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Afghanistan requires ensuring that Afghanistan can be sufficiently stable and capable of defending itself, as President Barack Obama explained during the surge announcement at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. Al Qaeda is not present in large numbers (perhaps less than 1,000) in Afghanistan now, but Secretary Leon Panetta stated ...
Denying al Qaeda’s re-emergence in Afghanistan requires ensuring that Afghanistan can be sufficiently stable and capable of defending itself, as President Barack Obama explained during the surge announcement at West Point on Dec. 1, 2009. Al Qaeda is not present in large numbers (perhaps less than 1,000) in Afghanistan now, but Secretary Leon Panetta stated in November 2012 that "intelligence continues to indicate that they are looking for some kind of capability to be able to go into Afghanistan as well." The U.S. and NATO cannot allow war weariness and economic conditions to obscure the realities and requirements they face. The recently announced accelerated shift to a "support role" in Afghanistan could become a guise to withdraw if "support" means just a few thousand counterterrorism forces and trainers.
In the eyes of many officials, a sound counterterrorism strategy rests on the assumption that the U.S. and NATO can kill their way toward a better future, against the Taliban and the Haqqanis or against al Qaeda and its affiliates. A decade of war proves the falsehood of this assumption. Experts outside the military are better qualified to determine how best to assist Afghanistan in the areas of governance, economic development, and reconciliation, and how best to move forward in Pakistan. But my experience in accelerating the growth of the Iraqi security forces — in size, capacity, and confidence — during the Iraqi "surge" of 2007 to 2008 qualifies me to speak about what is necessary to help the Afghan army succeed in taking lead responsibility.
The Afghans and NATO began a program of accelerated Afghan National Army (ANA) growth in 2009, recognizing that sufficient capacity is still years away. The ANA’s combat power is only partially developed. The tip of the ANA’s spear, its fighting units, is more developed than its shaft, its enabler capacity. Its human intelligence ability can sense near-term threats, but its capacity to detect and anticipate threats is low. On the ground, it can maneuver well, but the ANA lacks the air and ground mobility to shift forces around the country in order to mass against the enemy. Lack of mobility and its still-developing staff capacity reduce the ANA’s ability to apply timely and coordinated force. The ANA can place accurate enough direct fire against the enemy once engaged but has only limited land-based indirect fire ability. Nor does it have adequate air-delivered fires, important in the mountains and remote areas of Afghanistan. Pending medical, supply, maintenance, and transport capacity means that the ANA has limited ability to maintain momentum against the enemy once engaged. Leadership quality varies. All these shortcomings affect the ANA’s confidence and combat power; none will be complete by the end of this year or next.
None of this should be a surprise. In 2009, the Afghans and NATO wisely placed primary emphasis on accelerating fighting units, with secondary emphasis on enabler capacity. While their own systems were being developed and fielded, ANA fighting units could receive the support they needed from their NATO partners. As Afghan systems emerged, NATO support could be "thinned out" and ultimately cut altogether. To do otherwise would have been to grow the ANA at the pace of its slowest element, an approach that did not match the Afghan "surge" strategy adopted in 2009. In an underdeveloped country that has suffered from over 30 years of war and has very low literacy rates, growing enabler systems — supply, medical, transport, analytic, staff, communications, air- and land-based indirect support — takes longer. For this reason, the ANA will need some U.S. and NATO enabler support beyond 2014.
So how should the U.S. and NATO assist the ANA in taking lead security responsibility? First, leave a combat brigade, at least through 2014, to partner with Afghan forces in the east — a strategically important area where heavy fighting against the Haqqanis will continue. Second, in the south and southwest, embed assistance teams with every ANA battalion and higher to provide access to NATO enabling support, solidify gains already made, and deny the Taliban’s return to their historical stronghold. Third, in the west and north, embed assistance teams with ANA brigades and higher — again to provide access to NATO enabling support and solidify gains already made. Fourth, provide development teams for the ANA’s major commands (recruiting, logistics, medical, areas support, and detention), the ANA’s general headquarters, and the Ministry of Defense — to continue development of the ANA’s "shaft." Finally, the U.S. and NATO should leave behind "dual-purposed" enabler forces — intelligence, airlift and medical evacuation, air and ground indirect fires, supply, maintenance, ground transport, and logistics. These forces would support both the residual NATO training teams and provide the ANA support it does not have, until its systems reach sufficient capacity. Combined, these actions will improve both ANA combat power and confidence, increasing the probability that it will be successful in assuming lead security responsibility.
The exact size of this assistance and support effort can only be determined by a proper civil-military dialogue among the NATO nations and the Afghans. But, if the United States and NATO want to increase the probability that the ANA will be successful, the number will be around 30,000 troops, and this number will be required at least for the rest of this year and next. The size and cost of this force will diminish over time and will be significantly less than then near $10 billion per month the war cost at its height. U.S. and NATO strategic objectives are not yet accomplished in Afghanistan and cannot be "outsourced" to the Afghans. Pushing the Taliban out of the south is not permanent. The counteroffensive in the east is incomplete. The Taliban and the Haqqanis have not been defeated, and al Qaeda intends to return to Afghanistan.
Killing Osama bin Laden was a hugely important success, but it was only a disruption. Al Qaeda is not "dismantled or defeated," and it remains dedicated to bleed America and the West, to depose governments it claims are apostate, to eliminate the state of Israel, and to gain control of Central Asia, North Africa, and the Greater Middle East. Al Qaeda and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. They control an area about the size of Texas in North Africa that includes parts of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso, and Chad. Despite ample sanctuary elsewhere, they want to return to Afghanistan — for historical and symbolic reasons in addition to the complexity of the terrain, which is a nightmare for counterterrorism forces. They still recruit within the U.S. and Europe and have not given up on attacking both directly. They have not waivered with respect to their strategic objectives; neither should the U.S. or NATO.
If the United States and NATO don’t finish the job now, they will leave it to another generation. Many of those fighting in Afghanistan now were 5 and 6 years old at the start of the war; we do not want the same future for the current generation of 5- and 6-year-olds. Leaving an adequate assistance and support force in Afghanistan through 2013 and beyond is in the U.S. and NATO’s security interest. Certainly, the U.S. and NATO cannot afford to conduct operations as they have for the past decade. But equally certain, the U.S. and NATO cannot allow war weariness and economic conditions to obscure the realities and requirements they face. If the U.S. and NATO provide less-than-adequate support to the ANA this year and beyond, they should at least not fool themselves of the likely waste and result.
Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (retired) is a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, where Jeffrey Dressler is a senior analyst and team lead.