30 November 2009

Afghanistan Options Made Simple (Though the Choice is Not)

Tomorrow night, in a televised address at the United States Military Academy at West Point, President Obama will reveal his long-awaited decision on the next steps in Afghanistan.

The U.S. currently has about 68,000 troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Every aspect of US operations there has been subject to intense debate. If there is any consensus to be had in understanding U.S. objectives there, the two stand-outs would probably be:

  1. preventing Afghanistan from again being used as a home and safe haven for Al Qaeda; and
  2. preventing the hazards of an ungoverned Afghanistan from destabilizing the region, especially Pakistan with its cache of nuclear weapon.

Joanna Gurney from The Truman National Security Project Educational Institute, has put together a presentation called “Afghanistan 101” for those who want a quick overview of the situation. It addresses our goal in Afghanistan; connections between al-Qaeda and the Taliban; US strategy -past and present; the role of Pakistan; and why the President is reconsidering US strategy there.

Here is a glance at the President's main menu of options (according to the NY Times):

Option #1: The Full Monty - 40,000 troops

This is almost as many as Gen. Stanley McChrystal requested. David Kilcullen, one of the chief architects of US COIN doctrine, believes at least 40,000 will be needed.

Under the big option, U.S. troop strength in Kandahar would more than triple. They would more than double in Helmland. And a new infusion would occupy East Afghanistan in the provinces of Paktika, Paktia and Khost (called "P2K"). About 10,000 of the new troops would be deployed primarily to help train and equip the indigenous Afghan Army for an eventual handoff.

Option #2 - The Middle Ground - 20,000 to 35,000 troops

This option is currently the odds-on favorite. This option has the support of heavyweight advisors such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. Under this plan, there would be half as many military trainers, and much less emphasis on Helmland and P2K. For every 10,000 troops, you can count on a cost of about $10 billion per year.

Kilcullen thinks the middle ground is the worst possible option:

We can either put in enough troops to control the environment or we can credibly communicate our intention to leave. Either could work. Splitting the difference is not the way to go. It feels to me that all these options are dangerously close to the middle ground and we have to consider whether the middle ground is a good place to be. The middle ground is a good place on domestic issues, but not on strategy. You either commit to D-Day and invade the continent or you get Suez. Half-measures end up with Suez. Do it or not do it.

Option #3 - COIN Lite - 10,000 to 15,000 troops

This is Vice President Biden's preferred choice, but most other analysts are pretty skeptical and think the effects would be like putting a Band-Aid on an open chest wound. The rationale for the Lite plan is not to boost combat troop strength, but to focus on training indigenous forces and have more of the trigger-pulling and bad-guy-killing done by the locally unpopular Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones).

Remember the exciting new Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual? Well, if we were to follow the guidance of our own playbook - it would require a surge of more than a half million troops to fit the recommended troop:population ratio.

The Unconsidered Option - Calling it a Day

For a variety of reasons, I suppose, the idea of withdrawal didn't even have a "walk-on's" chance to make the cut. Those who think we should call it a draw and go home are a fairly diverse group, with different motivations.

Robert Jervis, for example, says: "Nothing looks good. ... I’m not convinced that withdrawal is as bad as the conventional wisdom has it. ..I’m really open to be convinced that the consequences are awful. And, of course, like all future, it’s unpredictable, but there are terrorist bases other than in Afghanistan, like in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And I’m not convinced the Taliban, which of course is not united, would give Al Qaeda an opportunity to consolidate power the way it did in 2001. So unless the U.S. government can come up with a plan that looks to have some sensible prospect, I don’t see the point in sending more troops."

Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and Senior Civilian representative for the US Government in Zabul Province (Afghanistan), in his September letter of resignation said: “To put simply: I fail to see the value or the worth in continued US casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year-old civil war.”

Most of the drama surrounding the President's decision is already over before it is even announced. Now, we will have to see how it plays out. Lives and Nations are quite literally at stake.