Category Archives: Afghanistan

Three Articles on Afghanistan

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.

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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.

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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.

 

America’s Commitment to Afghanistan: Two Contrasting Viewpoints

Colleagues: Two contrasting viewpoints on the American commitment in Afghanistan. The first, a summary of remarks make by Ambassador Ryan Crocker by Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, one of our foremost experts on the Mideast. While not effusive, Crocker certainly paints a more positive snapshot of progress in Afghanistan and recommends our “staying the course”. In contrast, Dr. Steve Hull of Reno (CAPTAIN-USN, ret) lays out a compelling case in favor of terminating our commitment now, arguing that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan does not warrant further lives lost and expenditures made. Read on. –Ty

 Ex-Afghanistan Envoy:

The progress is extraordinary

By Michael O’Hanlon, Special to CNN

Michael O’Hanlon is senior fellow at Brookings and author of The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. The views expressed are his own.

A few weeks ago, Ryan Crocker visited Washington after completing his year-long tour as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, as well as a storied 38-year career in the Foreign Service during which he also served as ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan. While Washington was caught up in everything from the Benghazi attacks to the presidential race to Congress’s brief visit to town before adjourning again to campaign, Crocker’s visit – and the subject of Afghanistan in particular – got relatively little notice.

That is regrettable. Crocker’s speech at the Carnegie Endowment on September 17, covered by CSPAN, and his public conversation with us at Brookings on September 18 were hugely informative and important. For those despondent about this war effort, they were moderately encouraging as well. There was, as usual, no naive optimism in Crocker’s remarks, no promise of an easy and quick win. Known affectionately if somewhat sardonically as “Mr. Sunshine,” a nickname first given him by President Bush, Crocker is famous for hard-hitting and extremely realistic assessments of the challenges facing America abroad. Those lucky enough to visit Iraq during the surge often remember a beaming Dave Petraeus standing beside a grim-faced Crocker, two very different personalities leading America’s greatest military turnaround since Inchon. So any hopeful words from Crocker merit particular attention.

And there were many, in fact. Crocker began by noting the enormous progress that Afghanistan has made since 2002, when Crocker did his first tour there as head of mission shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban. As he put it:

“You know, as we kind of gauge where we are in Afghanistan, we’ve got to do what we don’t do terribly well, which is take some perspective on it. I won’t take you back to Amanullah Khan and the 1920s, but I will take you back to my own experience, which was arriving in Afghanistan about 10 days after President Karzai got there from Bonn, the day after New Year’s 2002, and what it looked like then. And I’ve seen a lot of bad places, like Lebanon during the civil war – and this was worse. It was total, absolute, utter devastation. Driving in from Bagram, nothing but mud fields and destroyed houses. You dare not stray from what was left of the pavement of the road because of the minefields on both sides uncleared…No electricity, no water, no security forces, a completely dead economy, no nothing.

“So if the end of ’01/beginning of ’02 is your starting point, Afghanistan is looking beyond pretty good. If you were out there in May, you know, Kabul is a major South Asian metropolis: huge traffic snarls, commercial activity, sidewalks thronged, stores open, you know, 8 plus million kids in school, life expectancy vastly increased, close to 350,000 security forces in training or deployed. You know, the progress is extraordinary.”

Then there is the matter of those Afghan security forces. Hampered by illiteracy and corruption and ethnic tension, they are now also infamous in the United States for the insider attacks that have killed more than 50 NATO troops this year alone. Crocker hardly trivialized these problems. But he also provided vivid illustrations of how much those forces have grown and improved.

“The fact is in basically a period of just a little over three years, because we only really got serious, as you know, about sustained, large-scale training ’08/’09, well, what that has produced in a fairly short time is quite extraordinary. We have Afghan units leading in almost 50 percent of operations, and many of these are unpartnered. When we had the Koran incident out at Bagram, we went through a period of a couple of weeks in which we simply – “we,” the International Security Assistance Force – could not be in the field. We would just be gasoline on the fire. So Afghan forces had to deal with the protests on their own. They were not trained for it. They were not equipped for it, for riot control. They behaved very credibly and I think the surge bought the time for that training program to produce those kinds of results.”

Crocker also spoke of Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential race. While hardly predicting the imminent victory of an Afghan George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, he had some encouraging things to say on this subject too: “Politically, 2014 elections, everybody’s talking to everybody. Everybody is maneuvering. It kind of looks like American primaries. That’s not a bad thing…I think President Karzai is committed to leaving office in 2014, which obviously – and these are his own words – it’s essential for the legitimacy of the democratic process that in 2014 you have a president who is not named Karzai. He is thinking, again, very long term; he’s thinking of legacy. And I think, again, that has him focusing on not just an outcome, but a process that institutionally strengthens Afghanistan.”

Perhaps best of all was Crocker’s assessment of Afghanistan’s people. Normally in Western debates, we emphasize how shallow this talent pool has become after 30 years of warfare as well as rampant corruption in Kabul today. Alas those harsh realities cannot be ignored. But consider again Crocker’s words:

“In terms of human talent, you know, I was surprised to find at least as great and very possibly greater depth and breadth of talent in Afghanistan than I did in Iraq. Some extremely capable ministers, very capable deputies underneath them, you know, wrestling with some of the most volatile and changeable politics you can imagine, more so than Iraq. You’ve met many of them in finance, in mining, in health, in education. I mean, these are people who, you know, could run just about anybody’s ministry.

“Then there’s that…new element. It’s the 20-somethings, the early 30-somethings; it’s the women, the immediate post-university generation and their younger brothers and sisters, and their older brothers and sisters to an extent. In other words, those who came of age in perhaps a volatile and dangerous, but, nonetheless, free and open Afghanistan with access to the Internet, with access to a plethora of television, radio stations, newspapers, and so forth, boy, they ain’t their daddies and mommies. And can be, as you’ve heard yourself, blistering on the subject of their daddies and mommies. They see a new Afghanistan. And I think one of our major obligations as an international community is to buy them the time to really make a difference in politics.”

Of course, to paraphrase Crocker from another time period, all of this is hard, and it’s hard every day. To underscore the difficulty of moving beyond the burdens of recent history, not only within Afghanistan but Pakistan as well, Crocker also quoted Faulkner – the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past.” But for a country where America has invested so much, and still has such high stakes, Crocker’s restrained but still reassuring words should carry great weight in our future policy choices.

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And now for a contrasting viewpoint, this provided by Dr. Steve Hull, a retired Navy Captain and NSF participant

Denial and Reality in Afghanistan

Sergeant Carmella M. Steedly, United States Marine Corps, 31 years old, San Diego, California, is the 2131st and latest member of the United States armed forces killed in Afghanistan. Sgt. Steedly died in Helmand province on October 4th.

In light of these continuing and largely ignored losses, Ty Cobb’s recent summation of the status of the Afghanistan War is appreciated.  It is forthright and realistic.  A crowd of others have given their honest views about the course of the war.  Unfortunately, I have yet to see a major player in the last two administrations, while they were in power, exhibit such honesty.  Former ambassador Ryan Crocker extolled progress made since 2002 in speeches and interviews last month, but his own exceptional performance and optimism for ‘continued progress’ deny the reality on the ground. It would take a truck load of miracles, trillions of dollars, and a generation more of commitment to bring about the governance, economic and cultural change in Afghanistan ‘promised’ by American policy makers. 

What about the home front?  We The People are not war weary.  True weariness presumes constant  involvement and commitment and there has been no connection between the war and ninety-nine percent of the American people.  The war isn’t.  It isn’t in the media, it isn’t on the lips of policy makers, and despite some political footballing by Republicans and Democrats, it isn’t impacting the election. War weariness is the province of the military. They continue to sacrifice and toil in Afghanistan.  And their families?  They dread the inevitable deployments and then stoically face each day their loved ones spend in-country.   The rest of us don’t experience the war.  We are simply tired of hearing about it.

Our military will dutifully continue to prosecute the war as long as they are told to do so. But to what ends?  What are our war aims? Are they realistic and doable?  Why are we fighting? Our leaders have not articulated any such aims. Vague exhortations about Al Qaeda and the Taliban don’t add up to clear and publicly understandable war aims. Do any exist?  Do American ideas about a “safe and free” Afghanistan match the reality of a backward, tribal country led by a corrupt government?  Are we spending military blood and treasure and diplomatic capital myopically in Afghanistan when we ought to be more actively involved with the fallout from the ongoing Arab Spring, the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons, Europe’s economic meltdown, China’s growing military capabilities, and the modernization of our own military?

Disengagement from Afghanistan must begin now. It must be done with honor, respect and with dispatch.  It doesn’t make sense to stretch it out for another twenty-seven months. Our commitment has been fulfilled.  It is up to the people of Afghanistan to decide and determine the fate of their country. This will likely be difficult, expensive and violent.  It is time for our leaders to level with the American people about the reality on the ground and our scheduled December 2014 withdrawal.  They owe it to Sgt. Steedly, her family and all of the others who have served and sacrificed in Operation Enduring Freedom, and those yet to do so.

  •   Dr. Steve Hull (in Reno)

 

 

 

 

Afghanistan and the Future of the “Good War”

THE FUTURE OF THE “GOOD WAR” 

SHOULD THE US & NATO ACCELERATE THE WITHDRAWAL FROM AFGHANISTAN OR “STAY THE COURSE”?

By Tyrus W. Cobb

The U.S. has removed the last of its “surge” forces in Afghanistan, the 33,000 troops sent to the conflict to beat back escalating Taliban attacks. The withdrawal leaves 68,000 American troops in the war zone, with a primary mission of training Afghan security units before the end of 2014 deadline for the total withdrawl of NATO forces.

But a series of “blue on green” insider attacks against U.S. and allied troops by Afghanistan forces, continuing concerns over the reliability and effectiveness of Kabul’s army and police, blatant corruption at the highest levels, and simmering tribal rivalries that threaten national unity, have combined to raise serious questions regarding the wisdom of continuing our commitment.

Even staunch war hawks in the Republican Party are joining the opposition to the 2014 deadline, arguing, as SEN John McCain has, that the whole Afghan war has been a “total and abject failure”. REP Don Young, the powerful Chairman of the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, and a reliable “stay the course” war supporter, now says we should “remove ourselves from Afghanistan as quickly as we can”.

The insider attacks are the most worrisome. More than 50 coalition troops have been killed this year by Afghan partners, or those dressed as such. Western advisors have grown understandably wary of their security partners, so much so that NATO has ceased most joint operations—especially small unit patrols—with Afghan forces. The goal is to encourage the Afghans themselves to conduct more surveillance of their own people, to better vet them in the first place, and to take greater responsibility for the security threat posed by insurgents infiltrating their ranks.

The American public no longer believes the Afghan conflict is worth pursuing, by a growing margin. Although both President Obama and Governor Romney support the end of 2014 withdrawl date, both have stopped calling this the war that must be fought…..and won. The lack of public support is a factor driven by the continuing loss of lives—51 killed so far this year—and the costs of the conflict in this recessionary time.

The war in Afghanistan had been costing over $3 billion a day, a figure that has dropped some with the removal of the surge forces. Still, with the national debt now over $16 trillion and unemployment staying above 8%, there is growing uneasiness over the wisdom of continuing to expend such great sums on what is seen increasingly as an unwinnable war.

Most Americans believe that staying in Afghanistan until 2014, or beyond with a more modest presence, will not bring any significant improvement in government competence or Afghan security forces combat effectiveness. The sense is that this has been and remains a tribal country and that there is little the U.S. and NATO can do to “build a nation” artificially.

I was sent to Viet-Nam for my first combat tour in 1967, when the prospects for a successful outcome were thought to be achievable. I was sent back in 1972, at a time when the U.S. was clearly just “running out the clock” and hoping for a face-saving negotiated settlement. One thinks of the many soldiers who died in that post-Tet time frame, when the U.S. public opposed the war with greater vehemenance and the prospects for any form of “victory” seemed to fade.

Voices are heard today that say they do not want soldiers to die for a fruitless cause, or to expend billions in an effort to prop up a corruption-riddled and ineffective regime in Kabul.

To their credit, the American political and military leadership has not attempted to bury the challenges behind a fusillade of bravado of false hopes. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, GEN Marty Dempsey, have both acknowledged the serious partnership concerns and the shortcomings of our government and security partners.

To the American public, however, worn down by a decade long conflict that seems to have no end and buffeted by a pervasive economic downturn, maintaining the 2014 commitment seems increasingly dubious. They see a region “on fire” (not just Afghanistan), growing instability, the rise of Jihadist groups, the apparent failure of the “Arab Spring”, and the resilience of the Taliban and Al Qaeda affiliates.

They have concluded that the war is not sustainable. They favor early withdrawal, not just from the conflict in Afghanistan, but from the region as a whole. They have less faith in an American ability to fashion positive change in the Mideast, and do not want the costs of intervention—in lives and treasure—to continue.

  • Tyrus W. Cobb is the CEO of the National Security Forum and a former Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs.

Afghanistan on the Brink

IS THE U.S. COMMITMENT SUSTAINABLE? SHOULD IT BE?

 “In the end, the responsibility for a successful outcome for this war will increasingly be placed on an under resourced military tasked to accomplish ambitious objectives under daunting circumstances.”

 By Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb

Public support for the war in Afghanistan continues to decline as America’s longest conflict enters its 12th year. Increasing incidents between Afghan and American soldiers, an emerging “trust deficit” between Kabul and Washington, and continuing poor performance by the Afghan government and military have led many to question the rationale for continued U.S. involvement.

The United States is committed to maintaining a combat presence in Afghanistan at least until 2014 and a significant advisory force for years after that. However, the lack of support for this policy is growing and will make it difficult for the administration to continue its strategy as envisaged.

On the other hand, it would be equally challenging to assess that our goals are unachievable and, therefore, that a more rapid disengagement should be undertaken.

Most likely this means a speeded up withdrawal, attempts to reach an understanding with the Taliban and other militant factions, and continuing efforts to prop up the increasingly unpopular Karzai government. It means a shift of the focus of U.S. military efforts away from counter-insurgency (COIN) to training and advising Afghan security forces.

Developments in Afghanistan the Basis for Growing Pessimism

Over the course of the decade-long war, the United States has lost 2,700 dead, more than 18,000 wounded, and expended over $600 billion. The U.S. provided almost $16 billion in aid to Afghanistan last year alone, and has spent more than $50 billion since 2002 in training and equipping Afghan security forces. Yet the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan estimates that only about 1% of Afghan units can operate independently.

Foreign aid is propping up the Afghan economy and there is little confidence that Kabul can survive without this external assistance. The budget this year for Afghan security forces is around $12 billion—that is several times the amount of the government’s annual revenue! To continue this expenditure would require a long term financial commitment by foreign governments, and that is unlikely to happen.

Afghan citizens increasingly see the U.S. and other ISAF forces as “occupiers” in their country. The time of viewing Americans as liberators from the oppressive Taliban regime are gone. While there appears to be little support for a return of the Taliban to power, Afghans themselves seem to be equally unenthusiastic about the central government in Kabul or foreign forces.

Many believe that as the U.S. draws down, the Afghan security forces will be unable to stay together and likely not be capable of conducting major combat operations. The possibility of the country once again descending into civil war is quite strong; leaving the gates open again to a militant, well organized faction such as the Taliban to retake control—over at least parts of the country.

The number of “fratricide” incidents is growing. This does not refer to killings of officers by drafted enlisted soldiers within U.S. ranks as occurred in Viet-Nam. It means the actions taken by Afghan security forces against Americans, and conversely U.S. forces committing horrendous acts against Afghan civilian groups. Afghan soldiers, or those dressed as such, have conducted suicide attacks once inside allied bases to kill many ISAF soldiers, and such actions seem to be growing as Afghans tire of the U.S. presence. No one knows what drove Sgt. Bales to “leave the wire” and go on a killing spree of innocent Afghan children as well as other villagers, but frustration is growing within the U.S. ranks as well. This has led to the well publicized burning of the Koran and urinating on dead Taliban soldiers.

The “trust deficit” between American and Afghan security forces is widening. This puts a core principle of the emerging “advise and train” strategy in question. Simply put, if there is a lack of respect and mutual trust, can the concept of placing U.S. advisors with Afghan forces really work? Will our advisors/trainers be safe? Measures can be put in place to alleviate obvious vulnerabilities, but will U.S. advisors feel secure and confident they can work in an increasingly muddled combat environment?

Despite a decade of trying, the Afghan political culture has changed minimally. Corruption is endemic, illiteracy still prevails, women are treated inhumanely by our standards, the opium trade flourishes, and government competence is sorely lacking.

On the financial front, experts believe that more than $8 billion in cash was taken out of the country last year as richer Afghanis prepare for a comfortable life in exile.

Human rights seem at best marginally improved. Women are still jailed for “moral crimes”, such as resisting forced marriages, or even complaining about rape.

Thus it is not surprising that 47% of Americans want our withdrawal schedule ramped up, with only 17% believing that the U.S. should “stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes”.

U.S. Strategy Going Forward

Washington has all but abandoned its ambitious objectives for Afghanistan—a prosperous country committed to human rights, with minimal corruption and incompetence, and its citizens united around a common Constitution and democratic principles. While the Obama administration has not jettisoned its commitment to Afghanistan, it is shifting the focus from major combat operations against the Taliban and other militant groups to training Afghan security forces.

The nation-building precepts embodied in our COIN strategy have been eroded and our primary goals now are simply to deny safe sanctuaries to groups that threaten the United States itself. This means less “COIN” and nation-building, more counter-terrorism and Special Forces operations.

The focus is increasingly on a “counter-terrorism” strategy that Vice President Biden and others have suggested in the past. This entails increased use of drones to attack known or suspected military sites—even in their “safe havens” in Pakistan–, “targeted assassinations” of key Taliban operatives, and use of Special Forces in smaller scale kinetic actions. It means moving away from the “nation-building”, “protect the population” focus that our “COIN” doctrine mandates. It means leaving the more isolated and smaller outposts located close to the villagers, the core of winning the hearts and minds of the populace by living with them precept.

For the President, this being the “good war” he has consistently stated we must fight, this means still rallying American support for a continuing presence, even as casualties grow, metrics are disappointing, and expenditures remain high. However, there is no doubt that even within his own ranks, and probably in the Oval Office as well, there remains less confidence that our ambitious objectives can be achieved.

If so, does the President continue to send American forces into harm’s way? Does he recommit to expending significant resources there in the face of our fiscal crisis? What, some ask, is the morally courageous direction to follow? To continue on a course you believe less in every day so that the U.S. does not “lose face”, or consider other alternatives, even including total withdrawal as soon as possible?

I can’t speak to what policy makers are thinking, but the situation is eerily similar to Viet Nam post Tet in 1968. There was no doubt that Nixon and Kissinger felt that we could not achieve our objectives and that they were looking for a “face saving” negotiated outcome, while soldiers—such as myself—were sent back to the combat zone. No one today wants a repeat of Viet-Nam, where soldiers continued to die and expenditures made while executing an unclear and unconvincing policy.

GEN John Allen, the commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, faces an enormous task in standing up competent Afghan security forces, maintaining hard fought gains made by US/ISAF forces in the wake of the “surge”, and nudging the Karzai administration to accept the responsibilities inherent in governing. He must reduce American forces by a third by year’s end and rely increasingly on Afghan forces to fill those combat roles.

The President and our military leaders are correct in saying that if we walk away from Afghanistan, terrorists will return the country to Taliban rule or civil war. Things may be bad but they would be far worse if we departed before “the job is done”. Some also say that American trustworthiness as an ally will be eroded and our global standing impaired. They argue that we must hold the course through 2014, when Afghan forces will be strong enough to defend the country themselves.

Giving ourselves less time may guarantee we “lose the country”. But then, there is no guarantee that “staying the course” will not result in the same conclusion—an image of helicopters lifting Americans off the Kabul Embassy haunts us.

In the end, the responsibility for a successful outcome for this war will increasingly be placed on an under resourced military tasked to accomplish ambitious objectives under daunting circumstances.

  • Tyrus W. Cobb, PhD

Former Special Assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs

Contrasting Views on Progress in Afghanistan

May 26, 2011:

  Two Views on Our Progress in Afghanistan

Colleagues: Two contrasting opinions by experts on the prognosis for our strategy in Afghanistan. The first is by former Marine and Ass’t Secretary of Defense, Bing West, who has been a consistent critic of the “population-centric” COIN strategy in Afstan, which he thinks—based on much time spent in the war zone at the tactical level—is going nowhere.

I have also included a very recent assessment by Brookings expert Mike O’Hanlon, just returned from Afstan on a visit with Marine General Amos. I had asked two respected associates to provide a more positive assessment in order to balance what some (including them) might perceive as my “negativity” toward the potential for a successful outcome there.

I asked them for a recommendation—hence the O’Hanlon piece, and for their thoughts on Bing’s viewpoint. They wrote:

(From a long time regional expert formerly with the CJCS) Ty, in answer to your request for a piece that is serious and more upbeat than Bing West’s pretty negative assessment, I would recommend Michael O’Hanlon’s analysis to contrast West’s incessant, and in my opinion, ill-conceived strategic-level criticism based upon tactical-level observations.  

This is from Mike O’Hanlon in NYT from Saturday, May 21st.  Mike just back from travels with USMC Commandant James Amos in the same locales that West traveled over a year ago.  Far better news and much more balance than presented by West.

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 (From an Afghan expert and professor), “Ty, on Bing West, I loved his battle stories … accept some of his recommendations … but he never connects the dots.  We are so kinetic and he pretends the soldiers are all drinking tea and that we are wasting huge amounts on nation building.  He is right that this is the Afghans to win.  Most reviews of his have been good.  Joe

One critic of extending our presence in Afghanistan reminds us of the true costs of doing so: “More than $7 billion a month, perhaps another thousand lives lost, and thousands of limbs gone forever.”

OK—You again be the judge. Below are West’s fairly negative and long assessment followed by O’Hanlon’s more upbeat viewpoint. Ty

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NATIONAL REVIEW             MAY 20, 2011

A Thousand Years Away                                   

American valor, Afghan vacillation

BY BING WEST

Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan

In late March, I rejoined the platoon whose maneuvers I had described (With the Warriors) in the National Review. To reach the platoon, I first checked in at the operations center of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. While there, I watched the deaths of two insurgents. A real-time video feed from an overhead aircraft showed a motorcyclist and his passenger, carrying a pickaxe and bulging sack, driving past a crowded market in Sangin District. They stopped on an open strip of road, where one man hacked out a shallow hole. The other then placed an improvised explosive device (IED) in the hole. Minutes later, a Hellfire missile killed them both.

While the air strike was routine, the location was disturbing. In Sangin, the United States and its coalition partners had spent millions of dollars to provide electric power, schools, clinics, and roads. Yet the bombers on the motorcycle had driven brazenly through the market, unafraid of betrayal by those the coalition had aided for years.

The next day, when I reached the 3rd Platoon of Kilo Company, the troops were still living in cave-like rooms inside an abandoned compound. The big news since my last visit was the blimp tethered above Kilo Company’s outpost down the road. Its cameras streamed video night and day into the company’s two-desk command post. The Taliban, wary of the all-seeing eye in the sky too high to shoot down, had pulled back a few miles, to the annoyance of the 3rd Platoon. After half a year of steady combat, the men were wearing down, most having lost 10 to 15 pounds. They joked that the Taliban were inconsiderate.

“We have to walk farther to get into a fight,” Lt. Vic Garcia told me.

Before we left on patrol, the platoon gathered for a group photo. Since October, the 3rd Platoon had evacuated an average of one casualty per week — and they had one more week to go before deploying back to the States. 3rd platoon was a tight-knit band of warriors who, knowing they faced more casualties, were stolidly purposeful. For them, there was no backing off.

As we left the wire, Cpl. Colbey Yazzie unslung his Vallon metal detector and moved ahead to take point. An unassuming Navajo with a warm smile, Yaz was the platoon’s talisman, having discovered and detonated over 40 IEDs buried in the fields.

“How do you do it day after day, Yaz?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he grinned. “Just habit, I guess.”

“That’s not it, dude,” Sgt. Philip McCulloch said. “You’re awesome, man, the best in the battalion.”

As Yaz began to sweep back and forth, a dozen Marines fell into a single file behind him. Across Helmand Province, hundreds of similar patrols were on the move. Home to about 1.3 million Pashtuns, Helmand is a vast, flat desert interrupted by a few rivers fed by snowfields to the north. Most of the population lives in the Green Zone, a system of canals that sustains fertile farm fields along the banks of the rivers.

Near the patrol base, shepherds were tending cows and sheep, a sign they expected no attack by Taliban gangs. Several men rushed up to us, demanding payment for vague claims of battle damage. Every American battalion has millions of dollars to spend on local projects, and most farmers wanted a cut. We have created an Afghan culture of entitlement rather than self-reliance.

We walked past a farm compound that had been shattered by a bomb strike. Three waifs stood solemnly in the rubble. In a small field next to the compound, their father was scattering seed among poppy plants. He refused to look at the Marines.

Next to a fording point across a stream, Yaz found and cut a thick white electric wire. Buried somewhere close by was a plastic jug of explosives. One end of the wire led toward a compound where several women and children huddled nervously. After marking the spot for later examination by ordnance experts, Lieutenant Garcia gestured to Yaz to push on. The triggerman was long gone and there wasn’t any sense upsetting the women.

In its seven-month deployment, the 3rd Platoon had encountered over a hundred IEDs. The farming community knew the identity of the men who planted the mines. Out of fear, conviction, or both, the farmers remained silent.

Farther on, small groups of men glared at us. The white flag of the Taliban defiantly fluttered over an abandoned farmhouse. Out in the fields, farmers, women, and children hastened to shelter, a signal that the enemy lurked nearby. Staying in file, the Marines knelt and prepared to return fire. The sniper assigned to cover Yaz’s back scanned the empty fields to the front with binoculars. Garcia radioed the mortar crew back at base to stand by. When a helicopter gunship flew over for a look, McCulloch testily told the pilot to leave the area lest the Taliban be afraid to open fire.

The patrol wanted to fight. They measured themselves by how many enemy they killed. After waiting a half hour and getting no action, they returned to base.

***

After accompanying the 3rd Platoon on a few more patrols, I moved on. Three days after I left, Sgt. Dominic Esquibel, the 1st Squad leader, stepped on a mine. In the Iraqi battle for Fallujah, Esquibel had won the Navy Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for valor, but he refused to wear it because he wanted no personal recognition. He had stayed on active duty for one last tour in order to watch over his squad in Afghanistan. When I talked to him in the hospital, he was fighting to keep his right foot.

“I thank God it was me,” he said, “rather than one of my men.”

The next day, Yaz lost his right leg, and Corpsman Redmond Ramos sustained severe injuries trying to aid him.

“The IED maker had been watching me,” Yaz told me from his hospital room. “He set three mines. When I knelt to disarm one, another blew up under me. He was real smart.”

And he was real protected by the Pashtun code of silence. Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of the 22,000 Marines in Helmand during March, said the Taliban “have lost the support of the people within the province.” Perhaps. But the villagers remained silent about who among them were sowing the fiendish mines. Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has referred to the population as “professional chameleons,” providing support first to one side, then to another. This is understandable. A survey in Helmand and Kandahar last summer found that 71 percent believed the Taliban would return once the American forces left.

Kilo and the other companies of Battalion 3-5 had killed several hundred Taliban, and captured 80. The slipshod Afghan criminal system sentenced 15 of them to prison for at least a year; the other 65 were released or received token sentences. Every month in Afghanistan, there are about 1,400 IED attacks, requiring the collusion of many thousands of farmers. Yet fewer than 3,000 Taliban are being held in Afghan or coalition prisons, compared with 24,000 insurgents imprisoned in Iraq at the peak of the surge there in 2007. Most Taliban who are detained quickly walk free. On a per capita basis, Sweden has a higher prison population than does Afghanistan.

The 3rd Platoon went to Sangin with 53 troops and concluded their seven-month tour with 25 killed, missing limbs, or otherwise wounded and evacuated to the States. It took raw grit to patrol day after day, knowing that a large number of them would not return in one piece — or, in some cases, at all.

“The only way of approaching a war like this,” Garcia said, “is to block out the hurt. I tell my squad leaders they have to be the best. The skipper [Capt. Nick Johnson, the company commander] tells us we have to be the best company. Same attitude across the battalion. You compete to be the toughest. Never let the Taliban feel they have the upper hand.”

The platoon’s parent unit — the 3rd Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment — had suffered the heaviest losses (30 killed) of any battalion in the ten-year war. What was gained? They had broken the long-held control of the Taliban over Sangin District. What comes next? In March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Sangin to congratulate the Marines there for having “killed, captured, or driven away most of the Taliban.” He told reporters that a strategy was in place “to actually put us on the path to success.”

***

The strategy Gates mentioned consisted of four tasks. The first two are summarized as “clear and hold.” Across Afghanistan, each day nearly a thousand American platoons like Garcia’s sally forth through mine-laced fields and roads, waiting for enemies not in uniform to shoot first, so the platoon can fire back. This is a defensive, grind-it-out tactic based on attrition, and, as stated above, it has greatly degraded the Taliban’s capabilities, effectively clearing their fighters out of many districts.

That doesn’t necessarily deny the Taliban control of the population — the “hold” part. One obstacle is the rules of engagement: Out of respect for the culture, American troops do not enter farm compounds. They also do not patrol at night, when they cannot detect IEDs. And because the Taliban do not wear uniforms, they can live near an American base — as long as their neighbors do not betray them.

The current plan is to continue this approach for four more years while gradually withdrawing our forces. The approach can work, given enough time, money, and troops. In 2010, 499 Americans were killed; in 2011, the intensity of fighting portends a similar loss. The financial bill will be above $100 billion for the year.

“Clear and hold” cannot succeed by itself, both because the American troops are foreigners and because the math doesn’t add up. There are fewer than a thousand American outposts to secure 7,000 Pashtun villages. The Taliban wander in and out of the villages as frequently as American units do. At some point, the Afghan soldiers (most of whom are not Pashtuns) will have to fight their war without us. So, according to Gates, the third part of the strategy is to expand “the Afghan national security forces to the point where they can handle a degraded Taliban threat.”

Attrition can degrade and demoralize an enemy force, but today the Taliban still enjoy a sanctuary in Pakistan that is 1,500 miles in length. After Osama bin Laden was killed, Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader responsible for thousands of coalition deaths, remained snug and secure inside Pakistan. Although Taliban losses in districts like Sangin have been severe, the madrassas, or Islamist schools, in Pakistan provide a stream of zealous Taliban recruits. It is unclear when the attrition by American forces inside Afghanistan will exceed the replacement rate from Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Afghan police remain unreliable, while Afghan-army battalions sustain extremely high turnover rates. We have scant leverage to insist upon promotions based on merit instead of bribes and tribal contacts. In Sangin, most of the Afghan soldiers tagged along in the formation, while Marines like Yazzie cleared the way. Put plainly, we won’t know whether the Afghan forces can stand up to the Taliban until our forces have withdrawn. But it is not until the end of 2014 — four more years — that Afghan security forces are expected to take over the combat mission.

Apart from clearing out the Taliban by attrition tactics, denying them control of the population, and building up the Afghan forces, there is a fourth task for our battalions, called the “hold and build” phase. Our counterinsurgency doctrine states that “soldiers and marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.” That expectation has proved far too ambitious, if not downright arrogant. The 12 million Pashtun tribesmen whom our soldiers “secure and serve” — to use General Petraeus’s term — have remained steadfastly neutral, while accepting every dollar we give them.

Soldiers, not villagers, win battles. Our core mission must be to instill in the Afghan soldiers the belief that they can crush the Taliban. That’s not an impossible task. Today, the Marines have largely cleared Helmand, where for four years the Taliban had been viewed as invincible. The next step is to gradually move the Afghan soldiers into the front. Every American battalion commander, however, knows the serious defects in the Afghan army and does not want to risk failure by pulling back too quickly.

There is a path to accelerating the handover: Bulk up our adviser teams while reducing our conventional forces. Shift from protecting a neutral population to cultivating a fighting spirit in the Afghan army. Every day, Afghan soldiers accompany American soldiers on patrol; they are useful at spotting the Taliban, after which the Americans conduct the battle. The Afghans can be put in the lead if we replace 700-man U.S. battalions with 200-man adviser units that have adequate combat power and experienced leaders.

The surge of American troops has shattered the momentum of the Taliban. It’s unlikely they can regain that momentum. On May 15, Defense Secretary Gates said: “We’ve turned a corner, because of the Taliban being driven out and kept out. . . . Military pressure could create the circumstances for reconciliation.” One precedent is our Vietnam-era negotiations with the North Vietnamese, although they did not work out so well.

The central question remains: Why are we fighting, if the Taliban — unlike al-Qaeda — are not a terrorist threat to U.S.?

No strategy is risk-free. But since the secretary of defense has chosen to emphasize “reconciliation,” it is time to begin a quiet, steady withdrawal of our combat units. Karzai may cut an opaque deal with the Taliban, whom he refuses to call an enemy. If he does, it will signal that a decade of fighting by brave Americans like Yaz was due to a simple misunderstanding among Afghan brothers. As happened after Vietnam, a generation of American soldiers and Marines will then question the wisdom of their seniors who insisted upon the Sisyphean strategy of nation building in a tribal country 7,000 miles and a thousand years away.

(Mr. West, a former assistant secretary of defense, served with the Marines in Vietnam. He is the author, most recently, of The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan.) 

————–

Finally, a Fighting Force

By MICHAEL E. O’HANLON

IN the last two weeks, an Afghan police officer killed two American Marines in Helmand Province, and another killed a British soldier after a dispute over a soccer match. Last month, an Afghan military pilot killed nine American military trainers after an argument at a meeting in Kabul.

None of the killers seem to have been Taliban infiltrators, but that alone is not terribly reassuring. The United States’ exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan depends largely on the performance, competence and trustworthiness of the Afghan security forces, and critics of the mission view such episodes as evidence that the Afghan forces are generally unreliable — ineffectual in combat and too often unmotivated, erratic or corrupt. The issue looms over President Obama’s decision about troop reductions in Afghanistan, which he is expected to announce by July.

But there is reason to be hopeful. I was in Helmand Province last week, traveling with Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and despite the recent setbacks and other problems, my impression of today’s Afghan security forces was encouraging.

Helmand Province, for years a Taliban stronghold, has in the past year or so seen remarkable progress. Almost all of the populated parts of the province are now under the control of the Afghan government and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

The region is not completely safe, to be sure. But most major roads are serviceable, and government officials now generally use them instead of NATO helicopters to get around. Markets are open; schools have increased almost 50 percent in number since late 2009; twice as many Afghan officials work in local governments as did a year ago; and poppy production is down.

The even better news is that Afghan forces deserve an increasingly large share of the credit. The message from the Marines and British soldiers I spoke to in the province was one of growing appreciation for the skills and fighting spirit of Afghan soldiers and police officers.

Last year in southern Afghanistan, Afghans made up about half of all the combined forces used to clear the region of most Taliban weapons caches and strongholds. According to the International Security Assistance Force, roughly two-thirds of all Afghan Army battalions nationwide now score at least a 3 on a military-readiness scale from 1 to 5, meaning that while they still require outside help, they are quite effective when conducting missions with NATO troops.

Police and army pay is now adequate by national standards, and local recruiting goals for the Afghan Army and police in Helmand Province have been largely met this spring for the first time since the war began. Desertion rates are still too high, and Afghan troops too often overstay their military leaves, but the trends point in the right direction.

During my travels, several Marine officers who also had experience in Iraq told me that Afghan police officers and soldiers were better fighters than their Iraqi counterparts. Routinely, in towns like Musa Qala that are still tense, Afghans provide half the personnel on most foot patrols — and I was told that they do not shrink from fighting when they run into trouble.

I heard many anecdotes that spoke to the growing effectiveness of the Afghan forces. Recently, for instance, in the town of Marja, intelligence indicated the presence of Taliban forces in the vicinity. An Afghan unit responsible for that sector leaped into action. A few hours later it returned with Taliban captives.

The unit’s American partners told me that they would have preferred more of a plan — the Afghan forces were somewhat reckless in their response. But the important point was that the Afghans did not avoid combat or expect NATO soldiers to do their fighting for them.

Does this mean the United States should prepare for an immediate drawdown of troops?

No. What I saw and heard in Helmand Province supports the exit strategy — but not for this summer or fall.

An American commander told me that in his estimation, after an area is first cleared of the Taliban, NATO can substantially draw down its forces there 24 to 30 months later. That gives NATO enough time to recruit and train Afghan Army and police units, allows Afghan citizens to gain confidence that the Taliban is not coming back and gives the civilian government a chance to get off the ground. The time frame implies significantly reduced NATO forces in southern Afghanistan by next year.

In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, many Americans have argued that the country should cut its losses in Afghanistan and bring our troops home. But while the United States does need a better political and diplomatic strategy for the mission (in particular, for dealing with Kabul and Islamabad), this is not the time to jettison a military strategy that has finally hit its stride.

Michael E. O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/21/opinion/21ohanlon.html