National Security

The Real Pivot

It's time to change our plans in Afghanistan.

Last week marked a major inflection point in the war in Afghanistan. NATO decided to suspend joint operations with Afghan forces below the battalion level, while the last of the 30,000 U.S. "surge" troops returned home. After eleven years of conflict, the United States and its allies now stand at a fork in the road. They can continue to press ahead with an increasingly risky advisory effort, where the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops would continue widespread partnering with Afghan forces. Or they can start shifting now to a much-reduced military effort aimed at supporting the Afghan military in combat differently while protecting broader U.S. interests with smaller counter-terror forces.

Starting in the spring of 2009, the United States poured nearly 70,000 additional forces into Afghanistan, tripling its previous troop levels. The "surge" represented the last increments of this growth, capping an effort to counter major escalations of Taliban strength and aggressiveness in the preceding years. Newly arrived U.S. forces moved into areas where few Americans had previously set foot. These included Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, which is a significant poppy growing area but where only 3 percent of the Afghan population lives.

The Taliban largely fell back in the face of this onslaught, but quickly adjusted tactics to emphasize high-profile suicide attacks, ever-larger roadside bombs, assassinations of Afghan officials, and most recently, a surge of insider attacks. These so-called "green on blue" attacks have proven both costly and disruptive to coalition forces, killing more than 50 troops so far this year. Aimed squarely at Western publics, these attacks have provoked outrage in the United States and among its NATO allies.

If popular tolerance for battlefield deaths was tenuous, there is near zero patience with attacks from the very Afghan forces the allies have been working with over the last eleven years. Senator John McCain, not known for wavering in the face of military setbacks, noted last week, "I think all options [should] be considered, including whether we just withdraw early rather than have a continued bloodletting that won't succeed." Although he backed down from that comment the following day, McCain's visceral response signals an important shift among those who have long supported greater U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Another defense hawk, Republican Congressman C.W. Bill Young, was even more direct when he said, "We're killing kids who don't need to die" and "I think we should remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can."

The Obama administration now faces two dramatically different choices. It could resume lower-level partnering after several weeks, using the pause to enhance security measures and set new rules to protect U.S. and other NATO forces. U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan are almost sure to recommend this option, since they are deeply committed to the current approach and have invested years in developing its structural underpinnings. Yet once partnering is resumed, the inevitable next insider attack -- and the next, and the next -- would likely render this option politically untenable and markedly worsen the existing discontent at home and growing concern among troops partnered with Afghans in the field.

Alternatively, it could keep the current restrictions in place -- that is, no partnering or advisory work below battalion level -- while accelerating the draw down of U.S. and coalition forces. Special operations forces might be exempted from these restrictions, but conventional forces would focus on turning areas over to their Afghan counterparts more rapidly. At the same time, efforts could be ramped up to train English-speaking Afghan officers to replace American advisers as the frontline links to U.S. air power. American jets, helicopters, and drones would continue to be available to Afghan forces for rapid response when engaging the Taliban in close combat.

With this option, the United States could substantially draw down its forces -- perhaps to 35,000 troops -- by the summer of 2013, when Afghan forces are already scheduled to take security responsibility for the whole country. U.S. special forces could more rapidly assume the lead of American efforts, a step that is already planned for 2014. A deep reduction in U.S. conventional forces would make clear that the Afghan security forces --and President Hamid Karzai -- were unequivocally taking ownership of the war. Afghan infantry battalions would replace U.S. infantry battalions in securing villages and maintaining areas that have already been cleared of Taliban fighters. And the Afghan people might see civilian casualties from coalition airpower a bit differently if those strikes were called by Afghan troops, rather than by Americans.

U.S. military leaders often privately express concern about whether the Afghan forces will be able to stand up to the Taliban after most coalition forces are gone. Best estimates put the Taliban strength today at about 30,000 fighters. By next month, Afghan army and police forces will have reached their target strength of 352,000. In the next few years, they will be supported by unchallenged U.S. airpower, drones capable of downloading video or missiles, and adept counter-terrorist strike units. If the Afghan security forces can't hold off the Taliban under these conditions, NATO has far bigger problems in Afghanistan than returning a handful of advisors to the battlefield can solve.

The United States perversely finds itself today in the long-sought position of having achieved its broad strategic objectives connected to the attacks of September 11, 2001: Osama bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda is disrupted and diffused, and the Taliban no longer dominate Afghanistan. Yet eleven years on, the United States now finds itself implacably at war with the Taliban, a local insurgency with no discernible global objectives. The strategic logic of this costly effort in a world where U.S. military power is stretched thin is painfully elusive. It is time to put President Karzai and his troops in the lead and more rapidly draw down U.S. military forces to a sustainable, modest level of support. It is now time -- finally -- for Afghans to take full ownership of their conflict with the Taliban.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/GettyImages

National Security

'Our Strategic Compass Is Unmoored'

Notes from a general to his active-duty sons on the lessons of Afghanistan.

Editor's note: A few weeks ago, after watching the documentary Restrepo, FP columnist David Barno, a retired lieutenant general who served in the U.S. Army for over 30 years, sent the following email to his two sons. Restrepo tells the story of a platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley -- the site of some of the most sustained and difficult fighting of the war. In April 2010, the United States closed the base and abandoned the valley, where 42 U.S. troops had died and hundreds more had been wounded, having determined that the mission there was not worth the resources and continued loss of life. How much the Afghanistan war is "worth" is not an abstract question for the Barnos. Dave's sons are both Army captains who have been deployed to Afghanistan -- and at least one will likely go again. When he shared this email with us, we asked if we could publish it, and he was gracious enough to agree.

…Just finished watching it. Very powerful and emotional movie. Was thinking every American should watch it, but realized I have no idea what they would take away from it.

First personal thoughts from me --

I know these men and I grew up with them; they are of my tribe: infantrymen and paratroopers. Nothing in the movie was at all foreign to me. I lived that life with over 12 years inside infantry battalions, about twice as much time as some folks of my ultimate rank. In my head, I still self-identify most with being an infantry and Ranger company commander -- the 29-year old me. My later career identity is ephemeral; my nine year identity as a company grade officer and infantrymen is permanent.

Life as an infantryman in combat has changed very little over the millennia. I was particularly struck that infantry veterans of that same unit (173rd Airborne) in Vietnam would be taken aback how almost exactly combat in eastern Afghanistan in the 21st century for infantrymen looks exactly like combat in the highlands of Vietnam for infantrymen. Not much sign of any revolution in military affairs there.

Small unit leadership makes all the difference between good units and bad units, units that get nearly overrun and those that prevail. "Battle Company" had very strong leadership, and that is far more the norm across our units today than the exception…but there are exceptions. Our small unit leadership in this war I personally believe is the very best, by a big measure, of any war Americans have fought in -- a strong commentary on the AVF [all-volunteer force] and its quality of growing great leaders. After ten years of war, this obvious attribute would have been unthinkable in the past - Vietnam is a particular example of an Army destroyed by the ten year war it fought. And I saw first-hand what that looked like afterwards as a new lieutenant.

Troops in rifle platoons and infantry companies forever have been given muddy, dangerous, and seemingly senseless tactical objectives -- take that hill, storm that beach, attack and seize that city -- that young soldiers and junior officers swallow hard and press on to execute with pure strength of will and the hazy confidence that someone, somewhere has the big picture right. It will ever be so. We owe them a lot of focus to ensure the leaders up top actually do have it right. And we devote little organizational energy to ensure that happens.

The kids in Battle Company's 2nd platoon that stay in the Army -- probably a fair number -- will have far, far fewer problems ultimately adjusting to the shocks of their combat experiences than those that get out. Staying immersed in the same warrior culture and growing up into leadership roles is both cathartic and strongly supportive of such combat experiences. Jumping out into civilian life where no one has ever heard of the Korengal, much less knew anyone who fought there (maybe even anyone in uniform at all) will be deeply depressing and jarring to combat soldiers -- who now have no one with whom to talk combat. We need to think hard about how we keep these folks connected to each other. Even after they leave service.

I spent some time in that part of AFG and know the area, the terrain and the population a fair bit. For all of our tactical valor, and the hedgehog nature of how our incredibly tough, brave and committed small units go about the missions we give them, once again our strategic compass is unmoored -- in part, maybe largely because we rotate 2-star and 3-star HQ constantly, leaving no enduring frame of reference for what we are doing. Witness going into the Korengal. Witness coming out of the Korengal. Symptoms of a lack of operational and theater strategic continuity.

I'm glad that I finally got to watch this. I will think some more now on how to get it [in] front of broader audiences. It would work best as a film followed by a moderated discussion (maybe by mil types as a civ-mil discourse?). Maybe in a multitude of public settings it would seem to me…if folks are still interested.

John Moore/Getty Images