Afghanistan: Responsible Transition

BY Herschel Smith
3 years, 9 months ago

LTG David W. Barno and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security have authored a study entitled Responsible Transition: Securing U.S. Interests in Afghanistan Beyond 2011.  For my brief analysis to make any sense at all, the reader must refer to the original document.  I will not duplicate sections of the study, and I will not rehearse the arguments made by Barno and Exum.  My criticism of their study assumes a working knowledge of their efforts.

To begin with, Afghanistan is a thorny problem, and has been for a very long time.  No one should argue that the difficulties posed by Afghanistan are obviously posed or easily solvable.  But arguing that Afghanistan presents a “wicked problem” where the boundary conditions constantly change seems a bit apologetic up front for what they assume will be a tepid reaction to their recommendations.  No one embroiled in problems in industry, economics or family life gets the grace extended to argue that this one problem, out of all other problems on the globe, presents itself as the wicked problem.

Barno and Exum generally argue for a reduced footprint in Afghanistan beginning in 2011 – comporting with Obama’s wishes – to be supplanted by more robust engagement of the Afghan National Security Forces.  There seems to be a general knowledge with the authors that there are discipline problems with the ANA and ANP, but the extent of these problems do not seem to dissuade Barno and Exum from recommending reliance on them for the security in Afghanistan and the defeat of the indigenous Taliban (or at least, militarily holding them at bay).

I am not nearly as optimistic in the discipline and capabilities of the ANSF as Barno and Exum.  As we have discussed before, the ANA has been observed sitting in heated trucks while the Marines engaged in combat, has refused to go on night patrols, has routinely been observed firing off their weapons into the air while high on opium and hash, has colluded with the insurgents to kill U.S. troops, has been observed running from engagements, and so on the awful list goes.  Even a recent ANA showcase engagement about four months ago turned to a debacle until U.S. support arrived.

There are deeper problems associated with the ANSF, touching on societal, religious, familial, cultural, institutional and world view.  Even after years now of attempting to stand up the Iraqi Security Forces, one recent engagement by the ISF, called the Battle of Palm Grove, was a tactical nightmare.  Arabic and Middle Eastern armies lost wars for a whole host  of reasons, not the least of which is the lack of anything like a Non-Commissioned Officer Corps.  Barno and Exum suggest that the end state will be about 20,000 – 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, with the ANSF providing the primary combat against the Afghan Taliban.  I think that this is wishful thinking rather than good analysis.

Next, Barno and Exum rely primarily on Special Operators Forces to be the main stay of our presence in Afghanistan in 2014 and beyond.  For a whole host of reasons I think that this is a mistaken goal.  Regular readers know about my objections to the high value target campaign as being generally ineffective.  More of the same from 25,000 SOF troopers won’t stop the insurgency in 2014 any more than it did the job before now.  Furthermore, this reflexive reliance on SOF and SOCOM is interesting and colloquial, but completely impractical.

First of all, it’s simply infeasible to tie up all of our SOF and SF in Afghanistan beginning in 2014.  There aren’t enough of them to go around, and there will be engagements in Africa, South America and other places that require SOF.  Throwing SOF and SOCOM at problems typifies modern DoD thinking, but it’s just impractical.  Second, 25,000 SOF operators will suffer the same fate in 2014 that they would if this is all that existed in Afghanistan in 2011.  The Taliban would kill off the ANSF within six months and recovering and saving the SOF operators remaining in Afghanistan would become itself a SOF effort.  Third, logistics would be non-existent.  Barno and Exum seem to believe that air support, base security, FOB force protection, fuel, food, ammunition, and all other forms of support could materialize out of thin air, when in fact that is provided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops plus tens of thousands more of military and security contractors.  It is simply inconceivable that 25,000 SOF operators can simply exist in Afghanistan.  It doesn’t work this way.  It won’t even work to have 10,000 SOF operators and 15,000 support troops (totaling their end result of 25,000).  This isn’t a large enough support to infantry ratio.

To nitpick, I think that the categories that they create for the enemy are generally not useful.  I recognize the distinction between the Quetta Shura, the Haqani network, the Tehrik-i-Taliban, the LeT, and so forth.  But I think that among Afghanistan analysts there is a general lack of coming to terms with the degree to which these elements swim in the same waters.  A decade or more of exposure to radical Arabic Wahhabist ideology has given all of these elements a transnational focus and globalist import that may not have existed before.  Thus, while there is certainly internecine fighting within the ranks, and while neat categories may have been able to be drawn five or six years ago, I no longer believe in these neat categories.  I believe that this is simplistic thinking.

Joshua Foust has a critique of this study that deserves attention.  I concur with a lot of what Josh has to say, as always.  I demur on some of his points.  Concerning logistics:

I find it ridiculous that Exum and Barno think the U.S. can, conceivably, reduce or cancel Pakistan’s aid. It’s not just a question of Pakistan’s cooperation on logistics and counterterror measures—when the Pakistani government was mildly annoyed at a single incursion into Pakistani territory by a single U.S. helicopter earlier this year, it shut down the Khyber Pass and hundreds of supply trucks got destroyed. This is the policy equivalent of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face—no matter how much promise it holds, the Northern Distribution Network simply cannot handle the slack needed to eventually pressure Pakistan in this way. We are severely constrained by Pakistan’s position, and we cannot change that in the near term.

On that issue I have gone even further than Barno and Exum.  I have recommended complete disengagement from logistics through Pakistan and even forceful engagement of enemy elements currently provided sanctuary within Pakistan.  As to whether the Northern supply route can accommodate our needs, suffice it to say that this is a well worn theme here.  Let’s not refer to Russia.  Let’s refer back to the passage through the Black Sea to Azerbaijan and Georgia, across the Caspian to Turkmenistan as I have suggested (or Uzbekistan) and then into Afghanistan via the Northern route.  It isn’t a pipe dream.  It happened with some of the logistics from Iraq to Afghanistan.  This route could have been more well-developed than it is, and U.S. engagement of the Caucasus could have been a good defeater argument for the coming Russian aggression against Georgia in an attempt to relieve isolated Russian bases in Armenia.  The lack of a completed, fully functioning Northern supply route at this point is not only a tactical and strategic failure of the Obama administration, it is a complete policy failure.  It is a failure of vision.

With Foust, I agree that the notion of tribe is too easy to apply to Afghanistan, and I don’t believe that the Taliban is a Pashtun insurgency.  If tribe was so important, why was Baitullah Mehsud able to knock off so many hundreds of tribal elders in his solidification of the power of the TTP?  Government means something in Afghanistan, although I don’t know exactly what at this point.

Unlike Foust, I believe that we can more succinctly describe “victory” in Afghanistan.  It may not be Shangri-La, and woman’s rights may not be fully actualized.  Crime will still exist (the U.S. still has the Crips and Bloods), and there will still be corruption within the government (witness the disenfranchisement of military votes in the most recent U.S. Presidential election).  But al Qaeda, their enablers, and all other globalist elements within the AfPak region will have been killed or marginalized and put on the run.

Sadly, Barno’s and Exum’s recommendations do not get us there.



  • john

    The last presidential election had more military votes than in 2004. Blame the individual states for not doing a better job. We had 120,000,000 people vote in the 2008 election, please explain how “corruption” played a part in the the disenfranchisement of military votes and to what extent that effected the outcome. The individual states control voting, not the Federal government. As far as the “enablers” of al Qaeda are concerned, Afghanistan is the wrong country to find them they are in Saudi Arabia and the FATA of Pakistan

  • http://www.cowboyjihad.blogspot.com RRK

    Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism and has been for years. I hope everyone knows that Pakistan almost declared war on the U.S. when we invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 that is how invested they are in the Taliban.

    Using Hershel’s example of the different terrorist groups (yes they are terrorists not militants). The Indian Embassy was hit by a VBIED several years ago this attack was carried out by the LeT, facilitated by the Haqqanis, and we have SIGINT that Pakistan’s ISI ordered the attack. Why? because Pakistan fears Indian influence in Afghanistan.

    John, you hit the nail on the head Islamic terrorism centers on the FATA and the Saudi Arabia/Yemen. However we now have to account for Shiite Iran sheltering, arming, training Sunni Taliban members in yet another on their proxy wars against the U.S.. Which by the was the Iranians have gotten off very cheaply in killing Americans an account I hope someday is settled. Maybe we could make their new missile base in Venezuala go away that would be a good start.

  • jj

    @John
    “The individual states control voting, not the Federal government.”

    That is a true statement.They ARE controlling the voting and that’s the whole problem. They are supposed to follow federal statutes and guidelines. When they don’t, it’s the federal govt’s responsibility (ie. Holder) to enforce the laws. The inaction by the DoJ is telling. If a state excluded a group of gay men from voting I bet the feds would be all over it. But when it’s military, oh well tough shit they weren’t here to vote, the state won’t count them.

  • TS Alfabet

    To dove-tail on JJ’s comments above:

    all very true. In fact, in the 2010 Elections, several Blue states disenfranchised military voters by failing to send out the ballots to those in the military in time for them to fill out and return. This is simply indefensible. And, as JJ points out, the U.S. Dept. of Justice is specifically tasked under the Civil Rights Act to take action. I am a big States-Rights guy, but this is one area where States cannot be allowed to disenfranchise a segment of the population. As Christian Adams, the former DOJ attorney revealed, however, the DOJ has become so politicized under Obumble that they enforce U.S. civil rights laws very selectively. These are the beginnings of tyranny, my friends.

  • TS Alfabet

    More directly related to Herschel’s post….

    Pakistan has always been the problem from Day 1. I have long suggested that we make use of the thing that Pakistan fears more than anything: India.

    We should be doing everything we can to strengthen ties to India and bolster cooperation on A-stan with them while making it clear, privately, to Pakistan that they will be increasingly squeezed out if they opt to continue their duplicities. Pakistan is an artificial entity– its borders were drawn up and carved out of India after WWII. If Pakistan lacks the strength to control the terrorists within its borders then it ceases to be a sovereign state, i.e., it is already a failed state and different rules apply. If, on the other hand, it has the ability to control its own territory but chooses to allow or even nourish the terrorists (our declared enemies), then Pakistan is engaged in warfare against us and a different set of rules apply. Bold action is required either way.

  • http://www.snappingturtle.net/flit BruceR

    You assume the default state in the absence of U.S. troops is a Taliban takeover. I don’t see it. The ANA I worked with may be hapless in fighting a sensitive Western-style pop-centric coin fight in Kandahar province, but they will fight for their homes in the centre and north of the country. Their deeper thinkers see this whole last decade as a tactical pause between civil wars. Just because they’re not very good adjuncts to us doesn’t change that. Sebastian Junger made this point a couple days back, as well, and everyone who’s spent any real time with the ANA tends to agree. But the Hazara and Tajiks in particular face mass death if the Taliban come back, and lots of Kabuli Pashtuns like their new freedoms thank you very much. They will all fight, and fight hard; they just won’t fight well in the way we define for them in the meantime. (Having seen their working conditions and how little we actually invest in keeping them alive, I have trouble blaming them sometimes.)

    If there were any doubt on the issue, a very minor continuing involvement (by current standards) of our fires, ISR and CAS assets against Taliban moving in the open or installations would go a long way toward mitigating that. SOF too, if you like.

    You should see the default, post-2014, as a FEBA somewhere between Kandahar and Kabul, with the line basically drawn based on how much support (financial and military) we continue to offer the government.

    But they’re certainly not going to “kill off the ANSF in six months.” They might drive them out of Kandahar City and KAF, wouldn’t put that past them. But Bagram should basically be secure until the money runs out. If you want it, you’re likely always going to have that BAF “foot on the ground” from which to keep whacking Taliban, or any international terrorist camps that crop up in the places they control for that matter.

    Herschel, not saying you have to agree with me, but if you take the previous as assumed for just a sec, wouldn’t it change your calculus above at all? If we said after 2014 our aim was to just stay engaged on the side we favour in their civil war until it stalemates of its own accord, why would SOF + FID + Fires/ISR not be enough? And if that’s the case, why not move as quickly as possible to that endstate?

  • Šťoural

    FOB Joyce,8th December
    To try to tamp down the insurgency on the Afghan side of the border, Maj. Gen. Campbell said he plans to recommend moving troops out of some isolated, hard-to-defend bases in eastern Afghanistan to concentrate more of them in larger population centers.
    “I can’t be everywhere,” he said. “We’ve got to give it some time to work.”

    Hmm,probable transition….to taliban

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704250704576005563544608074.html

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  • TS Alfabet

    The link to the WSJ article by Stoural underscores the point that the Pakistan havens cannot be allowed to continue.

    As for BruceR’s comments above, the stalemate-state he envisions could not last long. Even if the Karzai Government forces could stalemate the Taliban initially and prevent an outright route, they would be cut off from the most important supply routes into the country. As Herschel has pointed out many times, the U.S. has done very little (and it may be too late now) to establish alternative lines of logistics through the Caspian into the north of A-stan. And that would just be military goods. What about the basic commodities of civilian life? Is the U.S. going to establish another Berlin airlift?

    The Taliban would quickly choke off a good portion of the shipping now coming through Pakistan (and Iran) into Kabul and points north. A-stan is not Korea. There are no ports or other, established trade routes from the north that would allow a Karzai government to survive for long.

    Can we just make up our minds to win this thing or decide that the game is not worth the candle and pull out?

  • http://www.snappingturtle.net/flit BruceR

    Agreed, TS, more alternative logistic routes are good. I just don’t think it’ll unravel so fast that one can’t still make those arrangements in time to continue to support a reduced force. I just can’t see it.

    The Karzais have spent a lot of their ill-gotten gains in shoring up their own hired guns (not the ANA, they don’t trust them) in the KAU, Razziq’s militia in Spin Boldak, and AWK’s own men in Kandahar City proper. If the insurgents can be kept from gathering in large numbers (hello, air power) then Kandahar could conceivably hold out a long time.

    The ANA officers I talked to about this, who were there at the time, saw the 1994-6 Taliban blitzkrieg as a combination of unfortunate circumstances, basically beginners luck. The Northern Alliance didn’t get its act together before Omar and his Pakistani advisers steamrolled Ismail Khan in Herat in ’95, cutting off Iranian supply to the Hazara militias. The opposition won’t make that same mistake twice. That left Russian supplies, through a bunch of new countries that were inconveniently breaking up at the time. That’s not the case now either. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular are going to be pretty free in their offering of logistical support the next time, if only to keep themselves from displaced person radicalism seeping north. That’ll give India an in to keep arms flowing, which they will do. All I’m saying is, my ANA contacts felt they were ready for the eventual rematch, assuming a measure of air support.

    If you accept the Mao 3 stages of insurgency model, the Taliban have re-mastered phase 2 (covert) since this insurgency started in 2005, but outside of the eastern mountains they’ve never got to phase 3 (formed units in the open). The thing is, for them to displace the ANA in the cities, at this point they need to go to phase 3. But once you’ve got an enemy army at phase 3, you don’t need all the humint, etc. to sniff out the enemy HVTs, because now you’ve got their formations on JSTARS when on the move, satellite imagery in their fixed installations, and they’re using sophisticated interceptable long range comms to communicate. And as we saw in 2001, troops in the open, in Afghanistan outside the mountains, like in the Kandahar desert, become as vulnerable to air power as any other army. It’s a war, I’m not saying its totally predictable (the fault lines that form as the two sides start stalemating are completely unpredictable, for instance), but it’s certainly not going to be an automatic Taliban triumph in a matter of months by any means even if we left lock, stock, which we all know we’re not gonna do anyway.

    As for Western forces, yes their logistics would be constrained, but it’s hard to see 30,000 or less personnel not being supportable through airbridge and overland supply from the north if the Pakistan routes get compromised. (I’ll tell you right now that stopping the flow of “basic commodities of civilian life” to Afghans is not something the Taliban could or ever would do, btw… they couldn’t blockade the border at Spin Boldak any more than we can. We don’t have to worry about airlifts of basic goods to civilians or even the ANA in any plausible scenario, just our own forces.) But to me that’s another argument for a smaller footprint and smaller ambitions at this point, not against them.

  • TS Alfabet

    Good points, BruceR.

    Just one rejoinder: South Vietnam in 1974-75.

    Who will be controlling Congress and the White House when that air power is needed?

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  • Šťoural

    Gen.Campbell,15th December,Bagram AF
    Change in strategy(not withdrawal-really?)

    There will be changes in the command’s footprint in the region, Campbell said. As the strategy has evolved to a more population-centered mission, combat outposts and forward operating bases will change.

    “I’ve recommended some that we need to come out of,” the general said. “There are some that we come out of and the [Afghan security forces] come out of. There are some we come out of and the [Afghan forces] stay in. There may be one or two that we may want to build up.”

    Most likely to be affected by these changes, Campbell said, are portions of Kunar province that have small populations and are isolated. The general said he envisions moving soldiers in those areas to places where they will be of more use, especially along Highway 1 and Highway 7.

    http://www.defense.gov//News/NewsArticle.aspx?ID=62107

  • Šťoural

You are currently reading "Afghanistan: Responsible Transition", entry #5858 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Center For a New American Security and was published December 9th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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