Stingy Allies and Afghan War

Burden sharing among allies in Afghanistan is declining as the battlefield demands increase and the consequences of quitting remain unacceptable.  What should the U.S. do?

The U.S. has at least three options in Afghanistan: pull out and accept the consequences, increase our level of effort and/or try to compel our allies to increase their contributions.  In any case, it will be years before the Afghans can take over the mission.

For the U.S., Afghanistan is a war of necessity because the former Taliban regime enabled al-Qaeda to mount the 9-11 attacks that killed more than 3,000 Americans and because many terrorist groups could quickly resume their safe haven operations from there if we fail.  Our goal is to create a self-sustaining Afghanistan able to deny safe havens to terrorists.

Quitting Afghanistan before it is ready to secure itself may be tempting but it isn’t a viable option because the consequences of failure are unacceptable.  The possible consequences include the Taliban returning to power which could lead to a regional civil war that might destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan and restore al-Qaeda’s safe haven.  It would also embolden jihadists and weaken regional allies.  

Alternatively, the U.S. could increase its troop levels.  More troops are required because President Obama launched a counterinsurgency strategy which focuses on securing Afghanistan’s 33 million mostly rural population scattered across that Texas-size country.  He also needs the resources to develop each community to help win the population’s “hearts and minds.”

To address that formula Obama promises to increase our troops by 21,000 personnel to 68,000 by year end.  But this increase is woefully insufficient to secure the Afghan population even when combined with our few willing allies.  The best estimate of how many troops are needed is being determined by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan.  He delivers his assessment to the president next month.

McCrystal’s analysis is complicated by a number of emerging factors.  The Taliban increased by 57% its attacks over the same period last year and recent operations are encountering unforeseen resilience among Pashtun militants in western and northern Afghanistan and even Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, is coming “under stress.”  

The general also warns the security mission and winning “hearts and minds” will be slow – translated, expect numerous troop rotations in the coming years.  “Until we hit the point where the insurgent fighters decide they cannot force us out or cannot discourage us, I think they’re likely to stay significantly,” McChrystal said.  

That’s why Secretary of Defense Robert Gates cautioned “This problem will not be over in two years.  This is, let’s be honest, a long-term commitment that we are involved in Afghanistan, if we are to ultimately be successful.”

The American public appears to accept an extended effort in Afghanistan.  A recent Gallup Poll found that 54% of Americans believe the Afghan war is going at least “moderately well” and an April 2009 Roper Public Affairs & Media Poll found 53% of Americans approve of Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.   But Gates cautions progress must be made in Afghanistan in the next 18 months in order to maintain public support for the mission.

Sending more troops is getting serious consideration.  Last week, Gates said he will soon decide whether to temporarily grow the army from 547,000 in order to cope with the dual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His objective is to extend the “dwell time” for troops between tours of combat.  That decision could also provide the president more flexibility to increase force levels in Afghanistan if it becomes necessary.

For now, Gates is waiting on McCrystal’s review of the operation and possible troop request.  “I think there will not be a significant increase in troop levels in Afghanistan … at least probably through the end of the year,” Gates said.  However, that leaves open the possibility more troops could be sent next year after we begin accelerating our withdraw from Iraq.

Even with a larger Army America’s military is severely stretched with 26% of the force deployed overseas.  We should ask why our allies aren’t doing more to help in Afghanistan.  

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a United Nations sanctioned coalition of 42 nations in Afghanistan to assist that government in the establishment of a secure and stable environment.  It has 61,130 personnel of which 28,850 are Americans and is also commanded by Gen. McChrystal.  

Most of ISAF’s assigned forces are hamstrung by “78-80 caveats” imposed by their nations to restrict where their troops can be deployed or the tasks they can perform, said recently retired Gen. John Craddock, NATO’s former Supreme Allied Commander Europe.   Craddock said the caveats “… increase the risk to every service member deployed in Afghanistan and bring increased risk to mission success.”  He argues they are “… a detriment to effective command and control, unity of effort and … command.”

Troops with too many caveats are not available for the types of counterinsurgency missions the U.S. Marines are now conducting in the Helmand province.  Rather, caveat-bound ISAF troops conduct support missions and stay behind the walls of their heavily protected forward operating bases rather than embedded in Afghan villages.  Ask American warriors in Afghanistan what ISAF means and you might hear something like “I Saw Americans Fight.”

Only a few ISAF countries like Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Britain and Australia are “in the fight” with the Americans.   Other NATO members, notably Germany and France, avoid danger by operating in the country’s relatively safe north and west.  

The lack of sufficient NATO fighters to augment American forces undermines Obama’s troop intensive counterinsurgency strategy.  Recently, Gen. Craddock said he failed to find a NATO ally willing to replace 2,000 U.S. Marines now conducting counterinsurgency operations in war-torn South Afghanistan and scheduled to leave in November.  

Unfortunately, the lack of NATO fighters will get worse.  The Dutch plan to give up the lead role in Uruzgan province next year and Canada intends to bring its troops home from Kandahar by 2011.  

Ultimately, Obama’s strategy rests on the hope the Afghan National Army (ANA) will quickly become large and competent enough to relieve coalition forces.  But the ANA is unlikely to be capable of that mission for several years. Today, the ANA has 89,500 personnel and the plan is to increase it to 134,000 by the end of 2011.  

A 2009 Rand Corporation study sponsored by the Pentagon concludes “… the ANA is a long way from being able to assume primary responsibility for Afghanistan’s security.”  The study states it will be “a matter of years” before the ANA is capable of securing the country and even then “some form of security assistance will have to continue for the foreseeable future.”

The Afghanistan war will be long and any further increase in fighters should come from caveat-free stingy allies and/or the maturing ANA.  The last resort for additional forces should be America and only after President Obama makes a convincing case that Afghanistan is worth more sacrifice.