Afghanistan Study Group Report

BY Herschel Smith
11 years, 1 month ago

Joshua Foust recently excoriated the Afghanistan Study Group Report.  I’ve pretty much ignored the report, it being yet another dumb small footprint, attack of the drones, CT v. COIN, send in the “special boys” SOF to kill all of the HVTs, etc., etc., ad nauseum, document.  Josh does a good job of exploring all of its inconsistencies.  Logical contradictions are death to an argument, and this report is chock full of them.  Consistency is not the hobgoblin of small minds.  It is the stuff of life.  Logical inconsistencies are to me a complete turnoff.  I close my mind quickly to someone who can’t maintain logical attention to detail.

Josh and I agree on many (and most) things, except for one important thing I will mention.  He argues that Afghanistan’s problems are not, per se, due to Afghanistan, but other things, including the messy way in which we have waged this campaign.  Josh and I agree on the messiness of the campaign, but I will continue to hold that Afghanistan’s problems are due to a multitude of things, not all of which but not the least of which is Afghanistan.  With my more enemy-centric view of counterinsurgency, I see a limit to the extent to which we are going to be able to convert their governance, ensure domestic tranquility, and bring them into the 21st century.  I believe that Josh sees more cultural engagement as necessary for Afghanistan than I believe we have the time or resources for.  That said, Josh is a smart Afghanistan analyst and his assessment of the report should be your next reading assignment.

Shortly after weighing in on the report, Josh catalogs various folk calling him a dumb ass.  Well, it happens, and I’ve had my fair share of folk calling me a dumb ass.  It rarely changes my mind on the facts of the matter, but sometimes amuses me.  On a related note, one particularly amusing comment to Josh’s post comes from Bernard Finel, with whom I rarely agree on anything.  He says:

I suspect that we have different definitions of “anything substantial.” We cannot wage a COIN campaign with 30k troops. But NO ONE claims we can.

As for the drones issue. Yes, I agree. The problem with an off-shore drone campaign is the intelligence challenge. I have never argued otherwise, but the report does not suggest striking individuals. It suggests striking essentially pre-9/11 style AQ facilities which we DID have good intel on despite having little ground presence.

So again, you are making a false argument. 30k is not enough to do what YOU want to do in Afghanistan. It is likely sufficient to do what the study authors believe is necessary for US national interests.

Strange comment.  He must mean 30k additional troops, not 30k troops.  And yes, Petraeus et. al., do indeed claim that we can wage a COIN campaign with what we currently have in Afghanistan.  As for the supposed intelligence pre-9/11, he must be joking.  I cannot seriously comment on this because it isn’t a serious point.  Moving on to his solution, most readers know what I think about the SOF high value target campaign, but just in case anyone has missed it, let me be clearer.

It doesn’t work.  Period.  Neither does the drone campaign.  I am not opposed to killing Taliban.  That’s what I want to have done anyway – from the bottom up, thereby marginalizing Taliban “leaders” because they cannot recruit fighters.  I am not compassionate over either the Taliban or those who harbor them.  But searching out HVTs didn’t work in Iraq, isn’t working in Afghanistan, and won’t ever work in any serious insurgency (to be clear, other things caused us to succeed in Iraq).  If the U.S. pulled out of Afghanistan – and here I am including leaving a small SOF footprint of several thousand troops, perhaps 10k to 20k, even though we don’t have than many to give – here is the list of things that would happen.

Within several months the Afghan National Police would dissociate, leaving nothing but an empty shell for local security.  The ANP who weren’t high on opium would have scattered.  The ANA would last a little longer, maybe half a year, but many of them would be high on opium or would scatter.  That corrupt bastard Ahmed Wali Karzai would have his carcass thrown out into the road, and Kandahar would fall to the Taliban within months.  The ANA would soon desert and run for home.  The Northern Alliance would crank up again in earnest, but wouldn’t be able to stop the surge of Taliban control.  Kabul would fall within a year.  It would take a SOF campaign just to save the SOF troops who had stayed in Afghanistan.  Except they would all be in Afghanistan, so someone else would have to do it.

All who had cooperated with the U.S. would be drug into the streets and shot.  Intelligence would be non-existent.  Most contractors who had provided logistics to U.S. troops would be shot within several months, and the rest would scatter.  The only logistics would be via air, and the only bases which would continue to be open would have to engage in force protection around the clock.  There would be no SOF raids because they wouldn’t know whom to target.  The drone campaign would cease and desist because any intelligence asset within Pakistan would quickly figure out that the U.S. had cut and run, and that the Taliban were clear winners.  Intelligence in Pakistan would  evaporate overnight, as if it had never existed.  Only the ghosts would be left to talk to us.

Now.  It isn’t true that I simply want more troops and more of the same while we try harder this time around, a potential charge and one that Col. Gian Gentile makes of Josh.  I have advocated against population-centric COIN and in favor of chasing the insurgents where they live.  I have advocated distributed operations and small unit maneuver warfare, less restrictive ROE, getting off of the FOBs, and around the clock contact with both the population and the insurgency.  The Marines are doing this in Helmand, and part of the Army is doing this in Kunar and Nuristan.  But we’re not doing this everywhere, and we should be.

Finally, others know solutions that are not being implemented.  SFC Jeromy Henning comments:

The smaller footprint argument is simply ridiculous. A true surge is needed on this side in order to support the Pakistani initiatives. Every time they had conducted a major action on their side (into the territories along the border) the porous border and minimally-manned US Zones became safe-havens for the bad guys. We need plenty more troops in Afghanistan to secure the border districts/provinces in order to destroy insurgents as they seek safety from Pakistani efforts. Afghanistan needs the same footprint achieved in Iraq to accomplish this.

One of the places we are continuing to ignore is the support of the Afghan Border Police (ABP). Of all ANSF, they maintain more kinetic contacts than anybody else, yet they are mostly ignored and barely mentored by a token US presence at the Zoon(BDE) level and higher. They could use better training and mentorship as they live and serve on the border. As long as they feel that they are of no importance to the overall cause against the insurgents and remain under supplied, under-equipped, undermanned, and poorly led, they will be vulnerable to corruption resulting in a continuance of poor border security.

So there are several things you won’t hear from either Joshua Foust or me.  You won’t hear advocacy for the small footprint, you won’t hear advocacy for SOF raids, and you won’t hear stupid advocacy for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban (big T).  What you will hear is advocacy for doing things smarter, for better language training, and for more troops.  One area where Josh and I disagree has to do with distributed operations versus population centers.  But at this point we are gilding the lily.  We need more troops and more force projection before that issue becomes relevant.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. On September 14, 2010 at 1:50 am, dmouse said:

    Interesting post and I agree with most of your opinions. But this “small footprint”, when bush sent are troops to Iraq he left what? 16 to 20 thousand to train and support the afghans. We see how well that worked out.

  2. On September 14, 2010 at 10:06 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Well, yes, except there are still 40 to 50k troops still in Iraq. My biggest problem with Iraq is the SOFA we are working under, and because of it we may as well not be there at all. But don’t get me started on that.

    Back to the report, any report that hints that our footprint is fueling the insurgency (a commonplace assertion in many of these studies) but then also suggests that it would be better to perform raids at night and shoot missiles from drones cannot be taken seriously.

    One would have to believe that troops in contact with the population, giving them money, protecting them from the insurgents and supplying them infrastructure is not good, but killing their kinsmen at night (and getting the hell out of Dodge so that the Taliban get the jump on the narrative the next morning in our absence) is good and will be liked by the population. It’s a sure sign that someone hasn’t thought things out very clearly.

  3. On September 14, 2010 at 4:28 pm, dmouse said:

    Just read there five-point approch, what a pant load.

  4. On September 22, 2010 at 9:22 am, Robrob said:

    “you won’t hear stupid advocacy for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban”

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on this subject. Are you just against current negotiations/reconciliation or “ever?” My assumption from COIN reading was eventual integration of the Taliban into the GIROA would have to be part of the end state.

    RE: our footprint. My experience has been they are perfectly willing to accept our presence. The only bone of contention seems to be their (not unreasonable) conviction that while we may win every battle we fight, one day we will leave Afghanistan; and them to the Taliban.

  5. On September 22, 2010 at 10:19 am, Herschel Smith said:

    Well, this is an interesting question you raise. I don’t oppose bringing the so-called ten dollar taliban (little t) into the fold with jobs, work, etc. We did that with the SOI (prior to that, called concerned citizens). In fact, my son worked with the IPs in Fallujah who were formerly insurgents, and trusted them implicitly. It was the ISF that they didn’t trust.

    But as for the Taliban (BIG T), I don’t think we can reconcile with them any more than we could with AQI and the religiously motivated fighters. They aren’t in it for money. I claim, not without some factual basis, that they have morphed into a more globally interested group after so many years of exposure to the Arabs.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published September 13th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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