Friday, February 10, 2012

Military Strategy in Afghanistan Turns a Corner

Leon Panetta let slip last week (one can hardly call it an announcement) that US troops in Afghanistan would shift from their combat mission into more of a “training, advise and assist role” to the Afghan military, as early as the “mid to latter part of 2013”.  Panetta mentioned the plan aboard an aircraft while enroute to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers, to discuss that organization’s plans for continued support of Afghanistan.  Some characterize his remarks as a refinement of the previous goal of Obama to have US troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but the curtailing of combat operations so early in that scheme – if that is what he means – comes as a surprise.  Panetta used the word “shift”, vague enough to suggest a wide leeway in how much time that transition would take, and was specific about a “formal combat role” – as opposed to an informal one?

Much like the standard dump of potentially troubling news from the White House on late Friday afternoons, Panetta dropped the news into the hopper and then immediately became unavailable for further comment during the conference.

The reaction is one of surprise and some damage control.  While some officials expressed surprise at an accelerated pace of drawdown, others within the administration are saying that this falls within a timetable for a withdrawal from the country in much the same way as our exit from Iraq.  (Not so: some eighteen months of a training and advisory status does not match the much shorter period seen in Iraq.)  Others are confiding that the news wasn’t supposed to be announced until a NATO ministerial meeting in Chicago next May.  One wonders if the surprise announcement mere days before by Nicolas Sarkozy, with Hamid Karzai at his side, that all French troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2013 – a year ahead of schedule – had an influence on Panetta’s timing of his comments.  (Sarkozy went on to recommend that all of NATO also have their troops out by the end of 2013 as well.)

The administration is basically throwing in the towel on a further formal structure of nation building, and this tends to reflect the mood of the public too.  This is to be expected with Obama, who has declared that we should leave Afghanistan despite his earlier portrayal of it as the “good war”, and he has tasked his military commanders to set plans and time-tables to realise that goal but has consistently over-ridden their input in favor of even earlier dates, set with an internal political goal in mind, instead of a military, strategic, or national security goal.  (There are those on both sides of the aisle who would argue the benefits of ‘nation building’, but they fail to recognise the lesson we have learned since World War I that, after invading and defeating an enemy nation, we must leave behind one that is no longer inimical to our interests.  As Colin Powell would put it: “If you break it, you have to fix it.”)  The question then becomes “How much is enough?”

The argument leaves out the element of where we stand in respect to the strategy of prosecuting the war.  As I have argued before, this move together with others has canceled the plan for the ultimate NATO strategy of cleaning up the last redoubt of the Taliban in Afghanistan, but a combination of war weariness (ignorance on the part of the American public due primarily to the severe cut-back of MSM reportage since the election of Obama), Democrat political goals (to ‘end the war’ – no more questions), and the fact that the administration has lost the diplomatic ability to sincerely coordinate with allied elements of the Pakistani government (much like we blew the end game with Iraq) means that Obama wants out on a timetable that benefits him in respect to the upcoming elections.

It would seem that practically the whole population in theatre has been aware of the upcoming American moves, without a small degree of cynicism.  This report by an experienced Army officer doing research in Afghanistan has received a good deal of attention in the blogosphere, as it portrays Afghans who know that the end is near for the Western commitment and are rapidly trying to adjust to the reality that the Taliban will return (exacting, no doubt, some degree of revenge on ‘collaborators’).  They are reticent to cooperate with us, and for good reason.

How can we salvage what we have bought so far with our treasure and our soldier’s lives?  The administration is reverting to the attempts as far back as the 1950s to conduct warfare with a mix of special operations (the highly touted – politically, not militarily – strikes of SEAL Team 6 recently, for example) and modern airpower, both manned and unmanned.  This has an appeal to them because it is popular (ever since the days of the “Ballad of the Green Beret” and now continues with the hype of the administration, despite the misgivings of the actual special operations community) and it is cheap.

Admiral William McRaven, commander of the US Special Operations Command, recently gave a speech at the National Defense Industrial Association which essentially highlights this direction.  He sets the stage for a shift in command of the Afghan theatre to SOCOM, but is explicit about Sec Ops fighting what is essentially a rear-guard action during our withdrawal.

I have no doubt that special operations will be the last to leave Afghanistan. . . . As far as anything beyond that, we’re exploring a lot of options.
Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations Michael Sheehan echoed the sentiment:
Could we use a few more years with the US in the lead?  Of course . . . but . . . now is as good a time as ever to push the Afghans out in front.
Translation: we have the word to do it, now we’ll have to figure out how, and we will.  Later would be better, but that’s not an option.

As an aside, the AP story on the meeting included this interesting tidbit:
During McRaven’s remarks at a Washington area hotel, there was an outburst from a retired special operations general who was angry at media coverage of special operations missions, such as last year’s SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed bin Laden, and the recent SEAL rescue of two Western hostages in Somalia.
Retired Lt. Gen. James Vaught shouted at McRaven to “get out of the media.”
McRaven calmly responded that avoiding media coverage was almost impossible in the 24-hour news cycle, and that while he objected to revealing sensitive tactics, the media could be useful, especially when reporting operations gone wrong.
“Having those failures exposed in the media helps us do a better job,” McRaven said.
There was more to this left unsaid, probably due to the benighted reporter.  First, if you’ve been involved with a briefing with General Vaught, an “outburst” is quite the norm, as he tended to subscribe to what can now be described as the Schwartzkopf style of leadership.  But McRaven’s reply takes on more meaning when one realises that Vaught’s primary special operations experience was with the abortive 1980 Desert One raid into Iran to rescue the hostages in the US embassy in Tehran.

As we pull out our more conventional forces then, we can see an increase in the force levels and operational tempo of special operations forces, particularly the Rangers and Marine Special Operations (MARSOC) overall, with SEALs (including DevGru or SEAL Team 6 as it is popularly known) and the Combat Applications Group or CAG (otherwise known as Delta) tailored to attacks on high-value targets.  McRaven leaves open the possibility that not only will they be engaged through the end of 2014, the original end date set by Obama, but possibly further on.  What remains to be seen is the question of basing: with our withdrawal from Afghanistan and an increasingly smaller logistical footprint there, along with what has been a somewhat supportive Pakistan but now potentially more hostile, and a lack of truly allied countries nearby, how would we support this point of a spear that needs a strong logistical tail?  We cannot rely on strictly US naval assets in the Arabian Gulf, and we would have to overfly Pakistan anyway, from a distance that eats into precious reaction time.  Our relations with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, involving small support bases, are tenuous at best.  That is an important question that has to be answered.

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