Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Finally, Obama gives us the small Afghan war plan we should have pursued in 2001

Last week I asked a friend what the Afghan war would look like had we gone small in the fall of 2001 — that is, not tried to run the whole country, but instead stuck with a regime protection force in Kabul.

US President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic National Committee event at the Warfield Theater October 10, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Obama is traveling to California to fundraise for Democrats. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic National Committee event at the Warfield Theater October 10, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Obama is traveling to California to fundraise for Democrats. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at a Democratic National Committee event at the Warfield Theater October 10, 2015 in San Francisco, California. Obama is traveling to California to fundraise for Democrats. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, I asked a friend what the Afghan war would look like had we gone small in the fall of 2001 — that is, not tried to run the whole country, but instead stuck with a regime protection force in Kabul. It is always better to go with the local flow, instead of trying to change cultures. (Cultural change doesn’t flow easily from the barrel of a gun.) After all, the Afghan government traditionally has controlled Kabul and its outskirts. Beyond that, it was a process of negotiation with regional leaders.

And I think that is what we have now, with the president's announcement. He is looking at a mighty small footprint. All 5,500 troops can do is protect the regime in Kabul. It really is just a reinforced infantry battalion, with a headquarters above it and all the necessary supporting units — intelligence, signals, medical, MPs, and so on. On a 24-hour basis, that doesn’t give you much more firepower than a company or two at any given time.

This might be Obama's equivalent of Bush's surge moment. Remember at the end of 2006 that President Bush went against his instinct to listen to his generals, who wanted to withdraw from Iraqi cities. Instead, Bush charted a very different course. Now, Obama has gone against his own instincts and decided that he has to keep a military presence in Afghanistan.

Last week, I asked a friend what the Afghan war would look like had we gone small in the fall of 2001 — that is, not tried to run the whole country, but instead stuck with a regime protection force in Kabul. It is always better to go with the local flow, instead of trying to change cultures. (Cultural change doesn’t flow easily from the barrel of a gun.) After all, the Afghan government traditionally has controlled Kabul and its outskirts. Beyond that, it was a process of negotiation with regional leaders.

And I think that is what we have now, with the president’s announcement. He is looking at a mighty small footprint. All 5,500 troops can do is protect the regime in Kabul. It really is just a reinforced infantry battalion, with a headquarters above it and all the necessary supporting units — intelligence, signals, medical, MPs, and so on. On a 24-hour basis, that doesn’t give you much more firepower than a company or two at any given time.

This might be Obama’s equivalent of Bush’s surge moment. Remember at the end of 2006 that President Bush went against his instinct to listen to his generals, who wanted to withdraw from Iraqi cities. Instead, Bush charted a very different course. Now, Obama has gone against his own instincts and decided that he has to keep a military presence in Afghanistan.

I think that’s the presence in Afghanistan we want, and should have tried in the fall of 2001. Now if he only can keep Biden from screwing up this like he screwed up Iraq.

Photo credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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