The 15,000 Troop Option

Plotting the course for post-2014 Afghanistan.

It is time to decide and announce the specific number of American advisors and trainers who will stay in Afghanistan after 2014 as part of the new NATO mission, Operation Resolute Support.

The 50 nations that today have troops operating in Afghanistan have collectively pledged to continue their mission well beyond 2014 and have drawn up a detailed concept of operations. But what remains under discussion is the size of the commitment.

Various options have been discussed, from the so-called "zero option" of complete withdrawal to a robust force of over 20,000 advocated publically by Generals John Allen and Jim Mattis, two key U.S. commanders.

After four years as the NATO supreme commander, and therefore overall strategic commander for operations in Afghanistan, I believe the correct number is about 9,000 U.S. and 6,000 allied troops, for a total of about 15,000 allied trainers who would focus on mentoring, training, and advising the 350,000 strong Afghan National Security Forces.

At the moment, NATO officials and the U.S. commander, General Joe Dunford, are waiting for the conclusion of the "fighting season" in October before rendering a recommendation to political leadership. This recommendation will go from General Dunford in Kabul up through both a U.S. and a NATO chain of command, and a decision may not be made until deep into the fall.

Instead of waiting for months, we should move now to decide and publically reveal the commitment.

Articulating the number in the range of 15,000 total troops would break the Taliban narrative decisively, making a lie of their oft-repeated trope that "the foreigners are leaving"; it would reassure the Afghans; it would demonstrate needed leadership to the large international coalition that is awaiting U.S. decisions. It would also encourage the conclusion of the strategic agreement between the United States and Afghanistan.

Why 15,000 troops? The post-2014 mission needs to be spread across Afghanistan, with centers in each of the regional commands -- north (Mazar-e-Sharif), west (Herat), south (Kandahar), and east (Bagram). There will have to be smaller centers in some of those regions as well, and a reliable ability to protect our own people and potentially provide some in-extremis support to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). All told, that will require 15,000 troops, still quite low compared with the 130,000 we had on the ground as recently as two years ago. This level would also provide critical mentoring and training in the areas in which the ANSF are still developing -- logistics, intelligence, medical support, close air support, and so forth.

The 350,000 ANSF troops operating today are doing a good job this fighting season -- their first with responsibility across the entire country -- in taking the fight aggressively to the Taliban. There has been a sharp drop in U.S. and allied casualties, a natural outgrowth of the NATO force stepping back and letting the ANSF do the fighting. This augurs well for potential success if we stay committed to mentoring and training the Afghans.

What does "success" mean in Afghanistan? It means a democratic (if somewhat corrupt) nation that has reasonable control over its borders (with occasional cross-border incidents to be expected), dominance over an ongoing but not state-threatening insurgency, improving if imperfect levels of economic growth, and a forward-leaning and growing education system with equal access for females.

The good news is that a reasonable amount of progress has already been made on these and other fronts. Nine million children, 4 million of whom are young girls, attend school (as opposed to fewer than 500,000 boys under the Taliban). Sixty percent of the population has access to health care (up from less than 10 percent under the Taliban), and life expectancy has risen from 42 to 62 years over the past two decades, the largest rise the United Nations has ever seen in such a short period of time. There has been robust growth in media outlets, computer access, and cell phone use (there are more than 16 million mobile phones in Afghanistan today). And, whatever its problems, the Afghan government remains relatively popular (with over 60 percent approval in recent NGO surveys), while the Taliban is deeply unpopular (with support from less than 10 percent of the population).

Nevertheless, four critical tasks remain. First, there must be an election to replace Hamid Karzai, demonstrating the consolidation of democracy in the governance of Afghanistan. This is scheduled for next spring, and it must remain on track. Second, allied troops -- hopefully about 15,000 -- must remain after 2014 as trainers and advisors. Third, we must fund the ANSF to the tune of about $4 billion a year, which is a bargain compared to the $100 billion or more we have been spending annually. This bill will be shared across the entire coalition, with the U.S. portion being around $2 billion. Finally, the United States and Afghanistan must quickly conclude a basic security agreement that establishes the structure and rules under which the post-2014 mission will unfold.

If we accomplish those four items, we have a reasonable chance of success in Afghanistan.

There are, of course, huge challenges: corruption, narcotics, divisive governance, disruptive neighbors, and dependency on the international community for many elements of growth. None of this will be easy, but I remain cautiously optimistic we have a better than even chance of success.

Stating the level of U.S. and allied commitment is the right next step to ensure we optimize our chances for a positive outcome. The so-called "zero option" is not an option, but rather the path to a probable mission failure. Now is the time to commit to a 15,000-troop U.S. and allied force. 

Sgt. Logan Pierce/DVIDS


The Cuban in the Desert

The secret blogger who explains al Qaeda's new strategy.

In April 2011, a post appeared on the leading jihadist web forum Shumukh al-Islam authored by a little known writer called Abu Asma al-Kubi. The post itself was unimpressive. It argued that European support had been critical in keeping the United States in Afghanistan, and thus "individual jihad" targeting Europe could cause America's complete collapse "before the end of this year." The BBC's web monitoring service rightly described the post as "a poorly written and incoherent analysis of current events."

Yet even at the time, the jihadist sympathizers who ran the web forum treated the post with a sense of importance out of step with its meager intellectual heft. Shumukh al-Islam promoted it heavily, placing a banner advertising the article on its main page. This was the second time that the forum had given such a prominent place to one of Kubi's posts -- the previous time, it was for an October 2010 post contending that then-ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus was preparing to negotiate a ceasefire with al Qaeda. The author's adopted name -- al-Kubi, or "the Cuban" -- suggested that he spent time at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, a hint that the man behind these posts may have been someone of significance.

Kubi would continue to post online for another couple of years, anonymously producing over a dozen long posts for a variety of jihadist sites. And when his identity was revealed, he turned out to be more influential than Western analysts could ever have imagined: He was Said al-Shihri, the deputy emir of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). It was only after AQAP admitted in July 2013 that Shihri had been killed in a drone strike that forum members went public with his identity.

At a time when the risk of a major terrorist attack by AQAP has succeeded in disrupting U.S. diplomatic work in roughly 20 countries, from Mauritania to Afghanistan, Shihri's writings provide a unique glimpse into the thinking of the organization's leadership. And with AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi's recent promotion to deputy manager of the global organization, they may even provide readers with hints of the direction that the entire terror organization will take.

Shihri's writings reveal a thinker who preferred a strong, centralized jihadist organization that nonetheless left ample room for individual initiative in carrying out attacks. At a time when some analysts still question whether al Qaeda is capable of strategic thought, he offered a phased plan for expanding jihadist power in the post-Arab Spring world. Yet despite his emphasis on strategy, Shihri's paranoia about Shiites -- who were seemingly an even greater target for his animosity than the United States -- distinguished him even from other jihadist writers. Given the renewed Sunni-Shiite sectarian animus over the Syria war, Shihri's writings may even have been ahead of the curve with regard to jihadist thought. If such views are held by Wuhayshi, al Qaeda may be poised to repeat some of the brutal errors it made in the past.

A jihad of one

Shihri's April 2011 post to Shumukh al-Islam claimed that "individual jihad" -- attacks by individuals not guided by al Qaeda's central leadership -- in Europe could cause the collapse of the United States. It was a theme he would harp on repeatedly. Several scholars have also addressed this issue, with some -- such as Marc Sageman in his 2008 book Leaderless Jihad -- suggesting that such informal networks could eclipse the importance of al Qaeda itself.

Shihri, however, saw no contradiction between individual jihad and al Qaeda's central hierarchy. In a February 2012 post, he described individual jihad as "very important," especially against the United States, which he viewed as a paper tiger. He thought it shameful that the United States had killed al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, and Anwar al-Awlaki without provoking even small retaliatory attacks, such as setting fire to forests or cars.  Shihri stated that individual jihad could "harm, deter, and distract the enemy," pointing specifically to the economic consequences of forcing the United States to spend "billions to secure its inside."

Shihri's posts seem to differ with opinions that argue that either individual or regionalized jihad has eclipsed al Qaeda's organizational structure as the driving force in terrorism today. He sees no contradiction between the existence of many different al Qaeda branches and a central jihadist structure. As he writes, God blessed the movement with "many jihadist organizations under one emirate."  

A jihadist need not wait to coordinate with the larger group, Shihri counseled. Rather, he should take his own initiative in gathering information "and whatever he can find ... to benefit jihad." That information should be passed along to the nearest leadership outpost, and "if there is an outpost in his country, he joins it or proposes to it the work that he can do."

In other words, Shihri formulates a largely centralized model, but one that incentivizes, encourages, and sets the direction for individual actions. This is consistent with the messaging and propaganda of AQAP, whose online English-language magazine Inspire consistently encourages readers to undertake individual jihad.

Al Qaeda and the Arab Spring

Lost in the often tired debate over whether the uprisings across the Arab world over the past few years damaged al Qaeda is the manner in which these revolutionary events have changed it. Shihri propounded a clear vision for how jihadists should respond to the changes gripping the Arab world.

Salafist movements have struggled with how they should relate to the region's new democratic systems, with some arguing that electoral politics, even if problematic, can be beneficial in helping to usher in sharia (Islamic law). Shihri delivered a sharp rebuttal to this view, arguing that Salafists erred by forgoing violence, which in fact was necessary to establish legitimate religious rule.

Shihri explained that a crucial step in establishing sharia was "fighting the invading enemies, be they pure infidels or apostate agents, and driving them out of the Muslim territories." Only once they had fought could they move on to the second stage - reestablishing sharia as the "source of judgment in all Islamic countries."

In Shihri's view, the efforts of Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood to establish a religious polity through political participation was a fool's errand. While most Westerners think elections confer legitimacy while violence does not, Shihri argued the opposite -- that imposing a religious regime by violence is the only legitimate alternative, while elections would create illegitimate authority.

While Shihri saw no hope in the political openings of the Arab uprisings, he immediately recognized that the regional upheaval would give jihadists an unprecedented opportunity to spread their ideas in society. The al Qaeda leader believed that one important stage of the new period was undertaking dawa, or missionary activity. While the old regimes in places like Egypt and Tunisia used to suppress such efforts, a number of jihadist figures who weighed in on the matter -- including al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri -- correctly predicted that the new regimes' tolerance for once-prohibited ideas would offer jihadists a chance to expand their base of support.

Anti-Shiite hatred

Shihri's stance toward Shiites is clear, uncompromising, and chilling. "Kill them wherever they are," he wrote in November 2011, "because they are disbelievers and are forbidden to enter the entire Arabian Peninsula."

Shihri consistently referred to Shiites by the pejorative term al-rawafid  ("rejectionists"). He described Iran and Shiites in general as "the chief enemy of Sunnis today," and seemed to view them as a greater foe than even the United States or Israel. Not only did the al Qaeda commander foresee the Huthis -- a Shiite movement in Yemen that AQAP has sporadically attacked -- capturing the capital of Sanaa, he also thought Shiites would seize control of the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, thus coming to dominate traditional areas of Sunni power.

With Wuhayshi's ascension in al Qaeda's ranks, understanding his strategic thinking is important -- and his former deputy's writing provides a good starting point. If Wuhayshi shares Shihri's views of Shiites, for example, al Qaeda might escalate some of its notorious sectarian attacks. It is also entirely possible that Wuhayshi's promotion will allow al Qaeda's core leadership to provide more frequent guidance to affiliates: After all, Yemen occupies a more central position than Pakistan, and in the past jihadists in Yemen have served as a conduit for communications between the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and North Africa.

Interpreting al Qaeda and its affiliates can be extremely difficult for Western analysts -- the organization remains so shadowy that we risk inferring broad trends from mere fragments of information. But as observers attempt to gain better perspective on Wuhayshi, they would do well to look at the online writings of "the Cuban" -- whose work, although it started so incoherent, eventually came to map a body of thought from which we might learn.

-/AFP/Getty Images