3 years 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.