Decision time in Afghanistan
Colleagues: Three articles on Afghanistan for your holiday reading. Two argue the merits of the proposed drawdown and exit of most forces by 2014. The New York Times advocates that the withdrawal needs to be accelerated, while the CFR’s Max Boot highlights the dangers and shortcomings of the exit strategy. The NYT wants an accelerated timetable; Boot argues for leaving more troops for a longer time in the combat zone.
Amid this exchange we often forget how extremely difficult either of those options will be to implement. I am often reminded of the phrase military leaders use, “Amateurs talk strategy, Professionals talk logistics”. In the third article, Walter Pincus lays out how expensive and difficult any withdrawal plan for the Exit will be.
Happy holidays! Ty
NYT, December 16, 2012
Big Decision on Afghanistan
One only has to read the Pentagon’s progress report on the Afghanistan war effort released last Monday to understand how pointless it is to keep 68,000 American troops there any longer. The mounting evidence makes it clear that they should be pulled out as soon as it can be done safely, instead of waiting until the end of 2014, the date set by the United States and NATO.
Yet the White House is now signaling that the decision on how quickly they will come home will not be made before next year.
The United States has spent a decade and $39 billion to recruit, train and equip a 350,000-member Afghan security force, including the army and police, that is supposed to defend the country when the Americans leave. President George W. Bush gave the effort short shrift when he shifted focus to Iraq. But even after President Obama’s considerable investment, the Pentagon says that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently, without air or other military support from the United States and NATO.
Although the report said Afghan forces are “increasingly taking over responsibility for securing Afghanistan,” that doesn’t mean keeping troops there will do anything but delay the inevitable. According to the American timetable, the Afghans are supposed to lead all operations by June 2013, just six months away. Even getting them ready to take over by the end of 2014 will be a challenge, a Pentagon official said at a briefing.
The problems are deep rooted, and unlikely to be solved in the next half-year. Most recruits are illiterate and have to be taught to read, in addition to martial skills. The units still depend heavily on the Americans for critical components of modern warfare — air power, communications, intelligence gathering, logistics and leadership. A Congressional study issued in September said that 20 percent of the troops are still deserting the army, and units typically are at only half their authorized strength. Problems with the police, where corruption is rampant, are worse.
The additional “surge” of 33,000 American troops in 2009 to drive the Taliban from their southern stronghold to the negotiating table weakened the extremists. But they remain “adaptive and determined” and able to conduct “isolated high-profile attacks,” the report said. Negotiations have gotten nowhere.
Meanwhile, the government of President Hamid Karzai is rife with corruption and unable to deliver basic services to its people. There is also a lack of coordination between Kabul and the provinces and an uneven distribution of power among the judicial, legislative and executive branches, the report said.
The United States has made mistakes in Afghanistan, but it has also afforded the Afghans a chance to build a better state. Commitments by the Obama administration and European allies to provide billions of dollars to support the security forces and finance economic development projects should be kept as long as they seem useful. But Mr. Obama should overrule any plan from the military commanders to keep most of the 68,000 troops there through 2014.
Steep U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan
brings substantial risks
By Max Boot, Washington Post, December 23
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present.”
The Obama administration appears determined to vacate Afghanistan as fast as possible. If the latest leaks are to be believed, officials are willing to leave as few as 6,000 U.S. troops behind after 2014, concentrated at the Bagram air base and a few other installations around Kabul. The mind boggles at what this would mean in military terms.
Consider one simple fact: Kandahar, the city where the Taliban movement started, is 310 miles southwest of Kabul. Imagine that intelligence analysts have identified a “high-value target” — say, a terrorist facilitator with links to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban — in Kandahar. How would the U.S. military capture or kill him without a secure base in Kandahar?
This scenario is, on some level, fanciful, because the lack of a U.S. presence on the ground around Kandahar would make it very difficult to generate useful intelligence. How would the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency run agents or even operate drones? Even assuming that the intelligence could be garnered, it would be exceedingly hard to act on the information.
A SEAL or Delta Force team typically reaches its target by helicopter. But Kandahar is a two-hour helicopter flight from Kabul and a fully loaded Blackhawk would need to refuel to make the round trip. Assuming there is no U.S. base in Kandahar, this would require aerial refueling, which is difficult and costly and would not necessarily be available 24-7. Given the long flight time, there is a good chance that by the time the commandos arrived, the target would have moved on.
It is doubtful that such a force would be dispatched in the first place, however, because commanders would be reluctant to send special operators into high-risk situations without having quick-reaction forces standing by to rescue them in the event of trouble. U.S. generals would not feel comfortable entrusting the lives of these elite operators to local Afghan army forces, especially in light of the well-advertised problem of Taliban infiltrators, so they would probably not order the mission in the first place.
That would leave only one way to attack a terrorist kingpin in Kandahar: from the air, with either an armed Predator or a manned aircraft such as an F-16. Yet the ability to keep either kind of aerial platform over Kandahar would be severely limited by the need to fly 600 miles round-trip from Bagram simply to arrive on station. So there would probably be a considerable time lag simply to drop a bomb, which again raises the risk of missing the target.
Relying on air power carries other risks, such as the potential for collateral damage, which can create more enemies than missions eliminate. Aerial attacks on wedding parties and the like were especially common in Afghanistan before the troop surge started in 2009. Without forward air controllers to call in air strikes, the possibility of errors goes up.
Another problem with air power is that it precludes the possibility of interrogating suspects and examining their computers and paperwork — one of the best sources of intelligence about terrorist machinations. The Joint Special Operations Command, composed of the top-tier special operators, has become such an effective man-hunting machine precisely because it has become so proficient at “sensitive site exploitation” and interrogation of detainees, sometimes leading to fresh missions being launched the night before a detainee’s confederates are even aware that he has been taken into custody. That will become impossible under the planned drawdown.
All in all, limiting the U.S. presence to 6,000 or so troops in Bagram and Kabul would be a major counterterrorism setback. It would also have a deleterious impact on the combat effectiveness of the Afghan army and police.
The Afghan National Security Forces, now 352,000 strong, have made considerable strides, but they remain heavily reliant on U.S. help for air support, logistics, intelligence, route clearance and other key “enablers.” The Defense Department’s new Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan noted that only one of 23 Afghan army brigades is able to operate without coalition help. The report also “anticipates that the [Afghan army] will continue to require assistance with logistics and acquisition processes beyond December 2014.”
Afghanistan is not expected to have a functioning air force before 2017, so Afghan forces will remain especially dependent on U.S. help for air support and aerial medevac. But it is doubtful that U.S. commanders would call in airstrikes without having U.S. advisers embedded with Afghan units — and under the rumored plan, no such advisers will be available. Afghan security forces will be on their own to face an entrenched insurgency, which has been degraded by the surge but remains a major threat in southern and eastern Afghanistan, thanks in no small measure to its havens in Pakistan.
It is hard to imagine how anyone in the Obama administration could conclude that a force of just 6,000 personnel would be sufficient after 2014 when, even with 68,000 troops today, the United States cannot prevent the Taliban and Haqqanis from operating openly an hour’s drive from Kabul. Such a precipitous drawdown vastly increases the risk of a Taliban takeover.
The High Cost Of Disengagement
By Walter Pincus
The United States has spent nearly $600 billion over the past 10 years putting combat forces into Afghanistan. Now it’s going to cost an additional $5.7 billion over the next year or two just to transfer or return most of the troops and equipment we shipped into that country, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.
The size of the withdrawal is mind-boggling. But with the “fiscal cliff ” approaching fast, it’s worth taking a moment to realize that the costly Afghan operation is going on a credit card, along with the $1 trillion or more spent in Iraq.
Iraq and Afghanistan are the first U.S. wars in which the American public was not asked to pay a cent in additional taxes. What were we thinking? As I list the new expenses, consider who is going to pay for all this and when. Congress and President Obama are negotiating over increasing revenue and cutting spending, but the billions in Afghan withdrawal costs cannot be reduced and must be paid. Their payment will be considered next month when Congress faces an increase to the debt limit.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department estimates that the military services have more than 750,000 major items worth more than $36 billion in Afghanistan, including about 50,000 vehicles and more than 90,000 shipping containers of materiel, according to the GAO report.
In fiscal 2011, the U.S. Transportation Command shipped 268,000 tons of supplies — more than 42,000 containers — into Afghanistan via its northern surface routes, which involve truck and rail routing through European and Central Asian countries. Those supply routes were developed after truck convoys from Pakistan were halted in November 2011 in response to the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The Defense Department has three ways to dispose of its Afghan materiel: transfer equipment to another federal or state agency or a foreign government, destroy the materiel in Afghanistan, or return it to another Pentagon location. The United States has three Afghan sites and plans for a fourth where materiel is to be destroyed and 10 storage areas where equipment is to be inspected and prepared for transport home.
The Iraq drawdown showed the importance of early planning. Withdrawal plans began in 2008, three years before the December 2011 final departure of U.S. combat troops. In Afghanistan, the Marine Corps and Navy began withdrawal preparations in 2009, the Army in 2010.
The Marine Corps established an “equipment reset strategy” in which it created a “playbook” that contains what the GAO described as “a single, detailed accounting of each of its 78,168 major end items in Afghanistan” along with “the initially forecast disposition instructions (return, transfer or destroy) for each item.”
For example, the July 2012 playbook showed that the Marines then had 33 “backscatter vans” in Afghanistan, vehicles whose X-ray capabilities are used at checkpoints and entry-control points to identify concealed weapons, contraband, ordnance and bulk explosives. They cost $700,000 to $800,000 apiece when new.
The plan is to return all 33 to the United States using air and sea transport, at a cost that could run to more than $150,000 per van, the GAO says. However, the Marine playbook says only 28 of them are needed to meet requirements in the United States. The GAO suggests that since five will be in excess of Marine Corps needs, a cost-benefit analysis may argue for disposing of them in Afghanistan.
A problem in Iraq was accounting for government-owned equipment supplied to contractors. According to a September 2011 GAO report, “There were occasions when contractors left Iraq camps and associated facilities without proper close out, abandoned equipment, failed to repatriate personnel (especially third country nationals), failed to obtain proper Iraq exit visas, [and] did not return government furnished equipment.”
Inventories in Afghanistan have not included contractor-used government equipment, but the Afghan command told the GAO that it was setting up a “contractor drawdown cell” to handle the problem.
Another unique Afghan issue is supply routes, because of what the GAO described as the “complex geopolitical environment in the region.”
Exiting Afghanistan is much more difficult and more costly than leaving Iraq. In Iraq, the United States had road access to the port of Umm Qasr and a major U.S. logistics base in Kuwait, just over the border. From there it was easy to ship materiel by sea from Jordanian and Kuwaiti ports.
The once-major Afghan supply routes through Pakistan, which were reopened in July, are considered to be in a test phase for materiel exiting Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Defense Department “faces challenges converting the northern routes to support outbound flow due to customs and diplomatic clearance issues,” the GAO says.
Landlocked Afghanistan also has had high-priority military equipment, including ammunition, shipped in by sea and then by air. It can cost up to $75,000 to return one vehicle by military air and sea transport and up to $153,000 using commercial carriers, according to the GAO. Sending a vehicle by surface routes can cost up to $43,000.
Under early plans, the U.S. Transportation Command projected that “14.2 percent of all returning equipment will be transported via the [northern route], 19.9 percent via the [Pakistan route] and 65.8 percent via [the air, sea transport method].”
In advanced planning, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the Defense Logistics Agency set goals for vehicles and containers. The monthly target was 1,200 vehicles and 1,000 containers.
Is all this complicated? Yes. But it’s worth paying attention to the monetary and human costs of getting into and out of military ventures so that perhaps the country will be better prepared next time.