The Afghanistan Strategy: Time for a Reassessment

The horrendous murder of sixteen Afghan civilians by an American soldier has once again raised questions whether the Obama administration has a viable strategy for Afghanistan and if the current timeline for US troop withdrawal should be accelerated.

As I wrote in this space back in a 2009 an article titled, “Afghanistan Debate Over, Now Time to Execute,” the test of the Afghanistan strategy President Obama presented to the nation in a speech at West Point would be how it played out on the ground in Afghanistan. The combination of recent events, a war-weary public, and a volatile political climate that is only exacerbated by the upcoming US presidential election warrant a reassessment of that strategy.

The US and the International Security Force-Afghanistan (ISAF) have made tremendous progress in achieving two of the strategy’s objectives: denying al Qaeda a safe haven and reversing the Taliban’s momentum. The Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 delivered a strategic blow to al Qaeda, while the organization’s presence in Afghanistan has been reduced to an estimated 50 to 100 insurgents. Additionally, the US military’s 30,000 troop “surge” that was primarily focused on conducting population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) operations in southern Afghanistan has been largely successful in eliminating Taliban sanctuaries and its ability to threaten the local population. In fact, Major General John Toolan, commander of Regional Command Southwest, recently said that “The tide has turned…[the] insurgency is no longer able to intimidate the local nationals to the point where they’re fearful of siding with the government of Afghanistan.” 

Unfortunately, the Obama administration only sourced 75 percent of then-ISAF commander General Stanley McChrystal’s 40,000 troop request and announced a timeline for their withdrawal by the end of summer 2012. The implementation challenges (at the operational-level) associated with these decisions were twofold: ISAF had limited capacity to provide additional combat resources for operations in eastern Afghanistan due to troop constraints, while the 2012 deadline and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s subsequent announcement that US forces may transition from combat to an “advise and assist” role sometime in the mid-to the latter part of 2013 have frustrated any plans for the command to shift its main effort for combat operations from the south to the volatile east prior to the planned withdrawal of all US combat forces by the end of 2014. 

The current COIN strategy relies on US and coalition troops interacting with and protecting the local population in order to build trust and demonstrate long-term commitment. To accomplish these tasks, conventional forces operate from a large number of military bases and smaller “combat outposts” across the country. Additionally, Special Operations Forces (SOF) operating in Afghanistan have initiated and expanded outreach programs such as Village Stability Operations (VSO) that require small units to move to and live in remote villages that have been identified as potential sites for recruiting Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces, which is a bottom-up approach that has been described as “a community watch with AK-47s” with over 12,400 trained members to date, according to NATO statistics. ALP members are recruited from the villages in which they live and have a clear understanding of who belongs in the village, and who does not – an obvious advantage from a security perspective. 

Unfortunately, Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the accused perpetrator of last week’s massacre, was reportedly assigned to a VSO and the tragedy risks undermining ISAF’s ability to implement the strategy’s COIN approach, as evidenced by President Hamid Karzai’s surprising announcement that US troops should pull out of their outposts in Afghan villages and “move to their [main] bases.” While politically appealing, the premature removal of US forces before Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) are ready to take over security responsibilities risks allowing the Taliban’s return and the loss of hard-won gains over the last two years.

To further complicate the issue, the murders occurred in the aftermath of two previous crises – the video of four US Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters and the burning of Korans at Bagram Air Base. While it may be difficult to comprehend how such major blunders could occur after 10 years of war, the Koran burnings resulted in a number of violent protests across Afghanistan and the deaths of seven US service members by ANSF (or insurgents dressed in ANSF uniforms) and forced the withdrawal of military advisors and trainers from various government ministries in Kabul. This had led to mutual distrust that has adversely affected ISAF’s training and advisory missions, which are critical “ways” to execute the strategy. 

Obama aptly described the decade-long fight in Afghanistan as a “hard slog.” Unfortunately, some of the challenges appear self-inflicted as he has spent relatively little political capital (nationally or internationally) garnering support for the escalating cost of the war, which has fed speculation that he is not fully committed to the strategy. In light of the strategy’s implementation shortcomings and a looming combat troop withdrawal deadline, it seems clear that what Obama envisioned in his West Point speech back in 2009 is unlikely to resemble reality on the ground in Afghanistan at the end of 2014. As a result, it is time to reassess the US Afghanistan strategy and Karzai’s recent comments and demands have provided the administration with the “political cover” to do so. 

A more feasible approach (given the looming deadlines and other constraints discussed earlier) is to shift from ISAF-led COIN operations with partnered ANSF units to training and support operations, with a specific focus on advising and enabling the ANSF to take the lead in the COIN fight. There is no need to accelerate the current combat troop withdrawal timeline as ISAF forces can continue to augment NTM-A’s efforts by “mentoring” their ANSF counterparts and providing combat and other assistance, as requested. Additionally, the Obama administration must continue its efforts to negotiate a SOFA with GIRoA that permits a smaller US military footprint to facilitate the security force assistance mission beyond 2014, while simultaneously authorizing a special operations capability in Afghanistan to conduct targeted counterterrorism operations to prevent al Qaeda’s return. Although Karzai’s steadfast refusal to allow SOF night raids (a key element of the strategy that has proven its effectiveness in Afghanistan) has effectively halted negotiations, unlike Iraq, a long-term security agreement is supported by both countries and these issues can yet be resolved. Finally, despite the Afghan Taliban’s announcement that will close its office in Qatar and suspend talks with the US in light of the recent tragedies, the Obama administration should continue to explore any opportunities to talk with the Taliban leadership as they will have a political role to play in Afghanistan beyond 2014.

These recommendations, while more narrowly focused, will require strategic patience and assurances that the US will remain committed to Afghanistan’s security beyond 2014, as opposed to “rushing for the exits.” It is not too late to achieve some level of “success” in providing a more secure Afghanistan by letting Afghans assume ever-greater levels of responsibility in defending their homeland. The recently-negotiated agreement to transition the main US prison at Parwan to Afghan control within the next six months is a step in the right direction and offers hope that a SOFA will eventually be agreed and approved.   Looking forward, all eyes will be on the upcoming NATO summit in May, where the alliance is expected to announce its plans regarding any changes in missions and troop withdrawal timelines. Let’s hope the summit provides greater clarity regarding the Afghanistan strategy and the way ahead. 

Jim Cook is a retired Army officer and a Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed in this article are his own.

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