Guest post by Gary Farber. Gary's home blog is Amygdala, and he invites you to read him there.
[Eric Martin: My friend Gary is going to be pitching in for a couple of days as I adjust to the enhanced parenting techniques that my son is submitting me too. And yes, sleep deprivation is torture.]
Part I of this two-part post is here.
First we have to distinguish between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Then we have to analyze what threat either actually presents. And then we have to do a cost-benefit analysis of what's the best course of action. The essential war with al Qaeda, both insofar as al Qaeda remains any kind of organization, and, more importantly, insofar as it remains an inspiration to jihadists, is an ideological war, not a military war. The Taliban now have tried a YouTube channel for propaganda. The best way to fight al Qaeda is to fight their ideology, and we're doing okay at that. From 2008:
[...] These new critics, in concert with mainstream Muslim leaders, have created a powerful coalition countering Al Qaeda's ideology. According to Pew polls, support for Al Qaeda has been dropping around the Muslim world in recent years. The numbers supporting suicide bombings in Indonesia, Lebanon, and Bangladesh, for instance, have dropped by half or more in the last five years. In Saudi Arabia, only 10 percent now have a favorable view of Al Qaeda, according to a December poll by Terror Free Tomorrow, a Washington-based think tank. Following a wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan in the past year, support for suicide operations amongst Pakistanis has dropped to 9 percent (it was 33 percent five years ago), while favorable views of bin Laden in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, around where he is believed to be hiding, have plummeted to 4 percent from 70 percent since August 2007.
[...] But two former senior intelligence analysts who have long followed the issue of al Qaeda's involvement in Afghanistan question the alleged new intelligence assessments. They say that the Taliban leadership still blames Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda for their loss of power after 9/11 and that the Taliban-al Qaeda cooperation is much narrower today than it was during the period of Taliban rule.
One of the arguments for an alternative to the present counterinsurgency strategy by officials, including aides to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, is that the Taliban wouldn't allow al Qaeda to reestablish bases inside Afghanistan, The Wall Street Journal reported Oct. 5. The reasoning behind the argument, according to the report, is that the Taliban realises that its previous alliance with al Qaeda had caused it to lose power after the Sep. 11 attacks.
Officials in national security organs that are committed to the counterinsurgency strategy have now pushed back against the officials who they see as undermining the war policy. McClatchy newspapers reported Sunday that officials have cited what they call "recent U.S. intelligence assessments" that the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups have "much closer ties to al Qaida now than they did before 9/11" and would allow al Qaeda to re-establish bases in Afghanistan if they were to prevail.
McClatchy reporters said 15 mid-level or senior intelligence, military and diplomatic officials they interviewed had agreed with the alleged intelligence assessments.
But John McCreary, formerly a senior analyst at the Defence Intelligence Agency, wrote last week on NightWatch, an online news analysis service, that the history of Taliban-al Qaeda relations suggests a very different conclusion. After being ousted from power in 2001, he wrote, the Taliban "openly derided the Arabs of al Qaida and blamed them for the Taliban's misfortunes".
The Taliban leaders "vowed never to allow the foreigners – especially the haughty, insensitive Arabs – back into Afghanistan," wrote McCreary. "In December 2001, [Mullah Mohammad] Omar was ridiculed in public by his own commanders for inviting the 'Arabs' and other foreigners, which led to their flight to Pakistan."
McCreary concluded, "The premise that Afghanistan would become an al Qaida safe haven under any future government is alarmist and bespeaks a lack of understanding of the Pashtuns on this issue and a superficial knowledge of recent Afghan history."
The Central Intelligence Agency's former national intelligence officer for the Middle East, Paul Pillar, expressed doubt that the Taliban's relations with al Qaeda are tighter now than before the Taliban regime was ousted. "I don't see how you can say that," Pillar told IPS. "If you look at the pre-9/11 relationship between the Taliban and al Qaeda, in many ways it was far more extensive."
In the civil war between the Taliban regime and its Northern Alliance foes from 1996 through 2001, Pillar observed, "bin Laden's Arabs and money" represented a far bigger role in supporting the Taliban than the one al Qaeda is playing now. "You can say that there are more groups which have relationships with al Qaeda now, but I don't see any as close as that which existed before 9/11," said Pillar.
Gen. Jones told CNN interviewer John King Oct. 4 the presence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan today is "minimal", adding the "maximum estimate" is 100 foreign fighters. One official critical of the White House position quoted in the McClatchy story suggested the number might be as high as 200 or 250.
Both figures appears to be consistent with the estimate by Western officials of a total of only 100 to 300 foreign fighters in Afghanistan cited in the New York Times Oct. 30, 2007.
Of that total, however, only "small numbers" were Arabs and Chechens, Uzbeks or other Central Asians, who are known to have links with al Qaeda, Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation told Voice of America the following month. T
The bulk of the foreign fighters in Afghanistan are Pashtuns from across the border in Pakistan. Those Pashtun fighters are recruited from religious schools in Pakistan, but there is no evidence that they are affiliated with al Qaeda.
Just this month, U.S. intelligence has increased its estimate of Taliban armed insurgents to 17,000, compared with 10,000 in late 2007. Even if all foreign fighters were considered as al Qaeda, therefore, 250 of them would represent only 1.5 percent of the estimated total.
Not much of a threat, and as has been much previously discussed, the terrorist attacks in London and Madrid were launched by Muslim extremists from apartments in England and Spain. The September 11th attacks were launched largely by Saudis in Germany; you don't need a country to engage in terrorist attacks; thinking otherwise was the Bush administration's fixation and a contender for their supreme foreign policy error, hard as it is to settle on just one. General McChystal wants to buy off members of the Taliban:
[...] The idea, he said, would not be to try to flip the Taliban’s leaders — that’s not likely — but rather its foot soldiers. The premise of the program, McChrystal says, is that most of the Taliban’s fighters are not especially committed ideologically and could be brought into society with promises of jobs and protection. “I’d like to go pretty high up,” McChrystal said, referring to the Taliban’s hierarchy. “It could be people who are commanders with significant numbers of troops. I think they can be given the opportunity to come in.”
The effort, McChrystal said, is based on his own reading of the Taliban and of Pashtun culture: most of the people fighting the United States, he argued, are motivated by local and personal grievances. They want more of a voice in local governance, for instance, or they want jobs. “Historically, the Pashtuns are very practical people,” McChrystal told me. “Pashtun culture adjudicates disagreements in a way that mitigates blood feuds. The Pashtun people go out of their way not to do things that cause permanent feuds. They have always been willing to change positions, change sides. I don’t think much of the Taliban are ideologically driven; I think they are practically driven. I’m not sure they wouldn’t flip to our side.”
Here's an obvious problem with that:
In 1996, approximately 40 percent of Afghans were Pashtun, 11.4 of whom are of the Durrani tribal group and 13.8 percent of the Ghilzai group. Tajiks make up the second largest ethnic group with 25.3 percent of the population, followed by Hazaras, 18 percent; Uzbeks, 6.3 percent; Turkmen, 2.5 percent; Qizilbash, 1.0; 6.9 percent other. The usual caveat regarding statistics is particularly appropriate here.
To be sure, that Pushtuns are a minority, though the plurality, of Afghans, is a good reason to think that the Taliban would have trouble in retaking much of the country again; in their last incarnation in power, they never did subdue the largely Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek Northern Alliance; the Northern Alliance maintained control over 30% of the country. But there remain problems with McChrystal's idea, inspired by the still unsettled and problematic creation of the "Sons of Iraq":
[...] With more American troops, McChrystal told me, he would be better able to squeeze the insurgents into changing sides. “I think a lot of them need to be convinced that they are not going to be successful,” he said.
An example of how badly pay-offs to the Taliban can go came last week:
When ten French soldiers were killed last year in an ambush by Afghan insurgents in what had seemed a relatively peaceful area, the French public were horrified.
Their revulsion increased with the news that many of the dead soldiers had been mutilated — and with the publication of photographs showing the militants triumphantly sporting their victims’ flak jackets and weapons. The French had been in charge of the Sarobi area, east of Kabul, for only a month, taking over from the Italians; it was one of the biggest single losses of life by Nato forces in Afghanistan.
What the grieving nation did not know was that in the months before the French soldiers arrived in mid-2008, the Italian secret service had been paying tens of thousands of dollars to Taleban commanders and local warlords to keep the area quiet, The Times has learnt.
US intelligence officials were flabbergasted when they found out through intercepted telephone conversations that the Italians had also been buying off militants, notably in Herat province in the far west. In June 2008, several weeks before the ambush, the US Ambassador in Rome made a démarche, or diplomatic protest, to the Berlusconi Government over allegations concerning the tactic.
However, a number of high-ranking officers in Nato have told The Times that payments were subsequently discovered to have been made in the Sarobi area as well. Western officials say that because the French knew nothing of the payments they made a catastrophically incorrect threat assessment.
Two Western military officials in Kabul confirmed that intelligence briefings after the ambush said that the French troops had believed they were moving through a benign area — one which the Italian military had been keen to show off to the media as a successful example of a “hearts and minds” operation.
Another Nato source confirmed the allegations of Italian money going to insurgents. “The Italian intelligence service made the payments, it wasn’t the Italian Army,” he said. “It was payments of tens of thousands of dollars regularly to individual insurgent commanders. It was to stop Italian casualties that would cause political difficulties at home.”
The Italians have denied everything:
[...] Premier Silvio Berlusconi's office called the report in the Times of London "completely groundless." The Italian defense minister denounced it as "rubbish" and said he wanted to sue the newspaper.
But the overall strategy remains questionable:
Whether or not that is true, it points to the biggest flaw in the “bribe the Taliban” argument: What happens when you stop paying?
Once again, the Iraq example is instructive. Responsibility for paying Sunni tribal militias, referred to by the U.S. military as the Sons of Iraq (SoI), was handed over to the government of Iraq, and a certain number of SoI were eventually supposed to be absorbed into Iraq’s security forces. But not all has gone to plan: Earlier this year, fighting erupted in Baghdad after the arrest of Adel Mashadani, a Sunni militia leader and key figure in the “Awakening” movement. As the central government moved to disarm and disband Awakening councils, it prompted concern about a renewed violence in Iraq as U.S. troops packed up for withdrawal.
And Afghanistan presents a much more difficult case. Iraq’s central government can count on a decent stream of revenue; Afghanistan’s government is pretty much broke. Bribery may work to a point, but it seems highly unlikely that Kabul could keep its internal opponents on the payroll when its operating budget is largely drawn from foreign aid and it can barely cover the cost of maintaining its army and police.
What we can do is focus on al Qaeda:
President Obama’s national security team is moving to reframe its war strategy by emphasizing the campaign against Al Qaeda in Pakistan while arguing that the Taliban in Afghanistan do not pose a direct threat to the United States, officials said Wednesday.
The official contrasted that with the Afghan Taliban, which the administration has begun to define as an indigenous group that aspires to reclaim territory and rule the country but does not express ambitions of attacking the United States. “When the two are aligned, it’s mainly on the tactical front,” the official said, noting that Al Qaeda has fewer than 100 fighters in Afghanistan.
Another official, who also was authorized to speak but not to be identified, said the different views of Al Qaeda and the Taliban were driving the president’s review. “To the extent that Al Qaeda has been degraded, and it has, and to the extent you believe you need to focus on destroying it going forward, what is required going forward?” the official asked. “And to prevent it from having a safe haven?”
The officials argued that while Al Qaeda was a foreign body, the Taliban could not be wholly removed from Afghanistan because they were too ingrained in the country. Moreover, the forces often described as Taliban are actually an amalgamation of militants that includes local warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network or others driven by local grievances rather than jihadist ideology.
What's the nature of these militants?
Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports.
Some of the major insurgent groups, including one responsible for a spate of recent American casualties, actually opposed the Taliban’s harsh Islamic government in Afghanistan during the 1990s, according to the reports, described by US officials under the condition they not be identified.
“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,’’ said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.’’
[...] The Afghan fighters use the threat of force to further their own economic interests - extorting payments from people shipping goods through the mountains including, in some cases, even US military supplies coming into Afghanistan from Pakistan, the officials said.
Which is to say, they're criminal gangs. Did you know, by the way, that we have a Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing? You'd think we'd be against that. (Yes, I'm kidding.) He's in charge of Treasury's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. You can read more about how that works here and here, if you're curious. Eric Schmitt describes the diversity of Taliban funding today:
The Taliban in Afghanistan are running a sophisticated financial network to pay for their insurgent operations, raising hundreds of millions of dollars from the illicit drug trade, kidnappings, extortion and foreign donations that American officials say they are struggling to cut off.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have imposed an elaborate system to tax the cultivation, processing and shipment of opium, as well as other crops like wheat grown in the territory they control, American and Afghan officials say. In the Middle East, Taliban leaders have sent fund-raisers to Arab countries to keep the insurgency’s coffers brimming with cash.
Estimates of the Taliban’s annual revenue vary widely. Proceeds from the illicit drug trade alone range from $70 million to $400 million a year, according to Pentagon and United Nations officials. By diversifying their revenue stream beyond opium, the Taliban are successfully confounding American and NATO efforts to weaken the insurgency by cutting off its economic lifelines, the officials say.
Despite efforts by the United States and its allies in the last year to cripple the Taliban’s financing, using the military and intelligence, American officials acknowledge they barely made a dent.
“In the past there was a kind of a feeling that the money all came from drugs in Afghanistan,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said in June. “That is simply not true.”
Supporting this view, in his Aug. 30 strategic assessment, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, voiced skepticism that clamping down on the opium trade would crimp the Taliban’s overall finances.
“Eliminating insurgent access to narco-profits — even if possible, and while disruptive — would not destroy their ability to operate so long as other funding sources remained intact,” General McChrystal said.
The C.I.A. recently estimated in a classified report that Taliban leaders and their associates had received $106 million in the past year from donors outside Afghanistan, a figure first reported last month by The Washington Post. Private citizens from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran and some Persian Gulf nations are the largest individual contributors, an American counterterrorism official said.
But the important takeaway point is this:
[...] Robert Gibbs, White House press secretary, indicated yesterday that the makeup of the insurgency is playing a prominent role in the discussions. “Some in the Taliban have similar agendas that have helped Al Qaeda with safe havens,’’ he told reporters at the daily press briefing. “There’s also a significant number of Taliban that are local warlords that have far different agendas.’’
Indeed, the intelligence reports say the Taliban movement that harbored the Al Qaeda terrorist network before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks is responsible for only a small share of the rising attacks - mostly in southern Afghanistan, according to the officials.
Even the hardline Frederick Kagan agrees that:
“The term [Taliban] has come to have a meaning far beyond what the United States should care about’’ militarily, said Frederick W. Kagan, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who is advising US military commanders.
Steve Hynd elaborates:
[...] The UK's DfID study, a recent Senate report and leaks of current US intelligence analysis reveal that most of the insurgency, while it might take training from the Taliban, could care less about the Taliban's ideological agenda. Between 70 and 90 percent of insurgents are motivated by resistance to occupying invaders or by the ethnic divides - the domination of Tajiks in a government ruling a Pashtun majority - that Nagl says don't exist. The Taliban just pay them to do lip service to their ideology and run under their banner.
See also Nathan Hodge's Winning Over the Taliban? Fat Chance.
What could we do instead of Nagl's only "viable alternative"?
[... The problem is that protecting all of Afghanistan, or even all the areas that the Taliban now threaten or dominate, would require many more troops than even McChrystal is requesting—by some estimates as many as 500,000 troops. Under these circumstances, if Obama agreed to send 40,000 more troops next month, it's a safe bet that the generals would request another 40,000 next year.
An alternative approach, then, is to protect not all of Afghanistan but just a few of its largest cities—say, Kabul, Kandahar, and Ghazni—and to throw at them all the resources they can absorb: military, civilian, financial, the works.
The purpose of this would be twofold.
The first would be to prevent the Taliban from taking over the central government, which is the main reason for having Western troops there at all.
The second would be to create "demonstration zones" for the eyes of Afghans all over the country.
If these zones really can be secured and supplied, if they are seen as enclaves of relative peace and prosperity, then Afghans everywhere will want the same thing and reject the Taliban (whose strength today stems less from their fundamentalist ideology than from their ability to provide order and services).
Meanwhile, under this alternative approach, U.S. and NATO forces would keep training Afghan soldiers and police, while special-ops troops and air power would continue to take out "high-value targets" such as top Taliban fighters (even pure counterinsurgency advocates don't think counterterrorist tactics should be cut off completely).
It's hard to say how many more U.S. troops would be needed for this alternative approach—but almost certainly far fewer than 40,000. Ideas along these lines are swirling around the community of scholars and soldiers who think about such matters.
Mehar Omar Khan, a major in the Pakistani army and currently a student at the U.S. Army War College, outlined just such an approach in the latest issue of Small Wars Journal.
Four specialists, including David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency veteran who advises several top U.S. officials and officers, make a similar case—which they call a "triage" or "enclave" strategy—in a recent paper published by the Center for a New American Security.
Another way to put this is go deep, not big. Gareth Porter:
[...] In a 63-page paper representing his personal views, but reflecting conversations with other officers who have served in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis argues that it is already too late for U.S. forces to defeat the insurgency.
"Many experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past eight years has already hardened a meaningful percentage of the population into viewing the United States as an army of occupation which should be opposed and resisted," writes Davis.
Providing the additional 40,000 troops that Gen. McChrystal has reportedly requested "is almost certain to further exacerbate" that problem, he warns.
Davis was a liaison officer between the Combined Forces Command - Afghanistan (CFC-A) and the Central Command in 2005, just as the Afghan insurgency was becoming a significant problem for the U.S. military. In that assignment he both consulted with the top U.S. officers and staff of the CFC-A and traveled widely throughout Afghanistan visiting U.S. and NATO combat units.
He also commanded a U.S. military transition team on the Iraqi border with Iran in 2008-09.
In the paper, Davis suggests what he calls a "Go Deep" strategy as an alternative to the recommendation from McChrystal for a larger counterinsurgency effort, which he calls "Go Big".
The "Go Deep" strategy proposed by Davis would establish an 18-month time frame during which the bulk of U.S. and NATO combat forces would be withdrawn from the country. It would leave U.S. Special Forces and their supporting units, and enough conventional forces in Kabul to train Afghan troops and police and provide protection for U.S. personnel.
The forces that continue to operate in insurgent-dominated areas would wage "an aggressive counterterrorism effort" aimed in part at identifying Taliban and al Qaeda operatives. The strategy would also provide support for improved Afghan governance and training for security forces.
Davis argues that a large and growing U.S. military presence would make it more difficult to achieve this counterterrorism objective. By withdrawing conventional forces from the countryside, he suggests, U.S. strategy would deprive the insurgents of "easily identifiable and lucrative targets against which to launch attacks".
Typically insurgents attack U.S. positions not for any tactical military objective, Davis writes, but to gain a propaganda victory.
After reading Davis's paper, Col. Patrick Lang, formerly the defence intelligence officer for the Middle East, told IPS he regards the "Go Deep" strategy as "a fair representation of the alternative to the one option in General McChrystal's assessment".
Lang said he doubts that those advising Obama to shift to a counterterrorism strategy are calling specifically for the withdrawal of most combat troops, but he believes such a withdrawal "is certainly implicit in the argument".
And sounding the note that turns up again and again:
[...] In the paper, Davis argues that the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by McChrystal would actually require a far larger U.S. force than is now being proposed. Citing figures given by Marine Corps Col. Julian Dale Alford at a conference last month, Davis writes that training 400,000 Afghan army and police alone would take 18 brigades of U.S. troops – as many as 100,000 U.S. troops when the necessary support troops are added.
The objective of expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000, as declared in McChrystal's "initial assessment", poses other major problems as well, according to Davis.
He observes that the costs of such an expansion have been estimated at three to four times more than Afghanistan's entire Gross Domestic Product.
Davis asks what would happen if the economies of the states which have pledged to support those Afghan personnel come under severe pressures and do not continue the support indefinitely. "It would be irresponsible to increase the size of the military to that level," he writes, "convincing hundreds of thousands of additional Afghan men to join, giving them field training and weapons, and then at some point suddenly cease funding, throwing tens of thousands out of work."
The result, he suggests, would be similar to what followed the U.S. failure to reassemble the Iraqi Army after the invasion of March 2003.
Davis also cites "growing anecdotal evidence" that popular anger at the abuses of power by the Afghan National Police has increased support for the insurgency. He calls for scaling back the increase in Afghan security forces to the original targets of 134,000 Army troops and 80,000 national police.
The crucial factor in determining the future of the country, he argues, is not the numbers of security personnel but whether they continue to abuse the population.
If that pattern of behaviour were to change dramatically, Davis says, "the number of Taliban fighters will dwindle to manageable numbers as those presently filling their ranks will no longer be motivated to fight".
And the large point:
[...] Challenging the argument of supporters of a larger war effort that it is necessary to avoid an increased risk of new terrorist attacks, Davis argues that being "myopically focused" on Afghanistan "at the expense of the rest of the world" increases the likelihood of an attack.
The present level of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, he writes, will "make it more likely that terrorist organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to plan and train elsewhere for the next big attack."
As Rory Stewart wrote in his must-read July 9th piece in the London Review of Books
[...] Even if – as seems most unlikely – the Taliban were to take the capital, it is not clear how much of a threat this would pose to US or European national security. Would they repeat their error of providing a safe haven to al-Qaida? And how safe would this safe haven be? They could give al-Qaida land for a camp but how would they defend it against predators or US special forces? And does al-Qaida still require large terrorist training camps to organise attacks? Could they not plan in Hamburg and train at flight schools in Florida; or meet in Bradford and build morale on an adventure training course in Wales?
Furthermore, there are no self-evident connections between the key objectives of counter-terrorism, development, democracy/ state-building and counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building. You could create a stable legitimate state without winning a counter-insurgency campaign (India, which is far more stable and legitimate than Afghanistan, is still fighting several long counter-insurgency campaigns from Assam to Kashmir). You could win a counter-insurgency campaign without creating a stable state (if such a state also required the rule of law and a legitimate domestic economy). Nor is there any necessary connection between state-formation and terrorism. Our confusions are well illustrated by the debates about whether Iraq was a rogue state harbouring terrorists (as Bush claimed) or an authoritarian state which excluded terrorists (as was in fact the case).
It is impossible for Britain and its allies to build an Afghan state. They have no clear picture of this promised ‘state’, and such a thing could come only from an Afghan national movement, not as a gift from foreigners.
Eric Martin wisely quoted this piece at length in a piece also much worth rereading. The entire question of why we should do more in Afghanistan than in Somalia, or various other failed states, is absolutely critical. What might we learn from our recent experience in Somalia? Jeffrey Gettleman:
[...] In 2006, the C.I.A. shoveled a few million dollars to predacious warlords in an attempt to stymie a competing Islamist movement. When that didn’t work, the American government supported Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic enemy, when it invaded. What followed was a nasty guerilla war that ended only when the Ethiopians agreed to leave earlier this year and the Islamists were allowed back in. Essentially, the 2006 status quo was returned, minus 15,000 Somalis, now dead.
Still, “most Somalis are not anti-American,” said Afyare Abdi Elmi, a Somali-Canadian political scientist at Qatar University’s International Affairs Program. “Most Somalis are pragmatic and they do not inherently oppose America’s involvement in Somalia per se. They reject when such involvement is associated with warlords or Ethiopians. Neither condition exists now.”
This could spell an opportunity, as the Obama administration seems to think. The United States and other Western powers have provided the new Islamist government with weapons, money and diplomatic support. While terribly weak, the government has proven to be relatively moderate, vowing to repel terrorist groups, and seeking a middle path in its interpretation of political Islam.
The United States, for its part, is helping the government in a crucial way, with pinprick counterterrorism attacks like the commando raid that killed Mr. Nabhan; these presumably advance the mutual interest of eliminating Qaeda terrorists and weakening the Somali insurgency, while avoiding civilian casualties.
So a new template for fighting terrorism may be emerging as the United States shows less desire to get involved in the local intricacies of nation building and more interest in narrowing its focus to Al Qaeda. The focus so far has been precise, limited and often covert, with attacks carried out with a parallel diplomatic strategy.
Some talk of a middle way in Afghanistan. But I've yet to see any rumors the administration is considering an actual downsizing path, as Austin Long outlines in detail what a "small footprint" mission could look like:
[...] First, this posture would require maintaining bases and personnel in Afghanistan. Three airfields would be sufficient: Bagram, north of Kabul, Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, and ideally Kandahar, in the insurgency-ridden south of the country. This would enable forces to collect intelligence and rapidly target al Qaeda in the Pashtun regions where its allies would hold sway. Kandahar, in the heart of Taliban territory, might be untenable with a reduced U.S. presence, so an alternate airfield might be needed, potentially at Shindand, though this would not ideal.
In terms of special operations forces, this posture would rely on two squadrons of so-called "Tier 1" operators, one at each forward operating base. These could be drawn from U.S. special mission units or Allied units such as the British Special Air Service or Canada's Joint Task Force 2. In addition, it would require a battalion equivalent of U.S. Army Rangers, U.S. Navy SEALs, U.S. Marine Special Operations Companies, British Parachute Regiment, or some mix, with basically a company with each Tier 1 squadron and one in reserve at Bagram. These forces would work together as task forces (let's call them TF South and TF East), with the Tier 1 operators being tasked with executing direct action missions to kill or capture al Qaeda targets while the other units would serve as security and support for these missions. In addition, two of the four battalions of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, basically one at each airfield, would be used to provide helicopter transport, reconnaissance, and fire support for the task forces. One battalion might be enough but two certainly would, thus ensuring that no targets get away for lack of lift. Note that according to Sean Naylor's reporting my direct action task forces are structured like the regional task forces in Iraq in 2006 that were tasked to hunt al Qaeda in Iraq.
Both task forces would be capable of acting against targets elsewhere in the Pashtun regions, but al Qaeda operatives would likely only feel even relatively secure in a fairly limited geographic area. TF East in Jalalabad would likely need to operate principally in the heartland of the Haqqani militant network (Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces) as this would be where al Qaeda's principal ally in the east could best protect its members, who are not generally Pashtun. For similar reasons, TF South would principally operate against al Qaeda targets in Kandahar, where the Quetta Shura Taliban is strongest, and some of the surrounding provinces such as Helmand and Uruzgan.
In addition to these two task forces, I would retain the three Army Special Forces' battalions and other elements that appear to be assigned to Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Afghanistan. While TFs South and East would focus purely on direct action, these Special Forces units would partner with local forces to collect intelligence and secure specific areas. These local forces would in many cases be from non-Pashtun ethnic groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras), which would limit their ability to be effective in the Pashtun areaa but would likely include at least a few Pashtun tribes that see more benefit working with the Afghan government and the United States than against them. Rather than serving an offensive purpose against al Qaeda like TF South and East, Special Forces would essentially serve a defensive purpose to secure Afghan allies and reassure them that the United States is not going to abandon them.
This reassurance and support of local allies is a crucial and underappreciated part of a small footprint posture. The non-Pashtun groups were the United States' critical allies in 2001 and remain staunchly opposed to the Taliban and other militants. The Tajiks of the Panjshir Valley, for example, are probably more anti-Taliban than the United States is. With U.S. support, these groups will be able to prevent the expansion of militants outside Pashtun areas. Local allies in Pashtun areas will enable collection of intelligence to support the task force operations. Supporting local allies does not mean abandoning the Afghan government any more than supporting local allies in the Awakening movement in Iraq's Anbar province meant abandoning the government of Iraq. Balancing the two will require some deftness and will be the focus of another post.
Finally, a few more "enablers," to use another military term of art, would be required. First, this posture would need some additional special operations personnel focused on intelligence collection, along with a substantial complement of intelligence community personnel to collect both human and signals intelligence. Second, it would require a substantial complement of unmanned aerial vehicles including Predators, Reapers, and a few other specialized types along with their support personnel. Third, a few AC-130 gunships for air support would be needed, along with combat search and rescue teams from Air Force Special Operations Command.
It should be clear that "small footprint" is a relative term. This special operations posture alone would be roughly five battalions of ground forces, four aviation squadrons, and a few odds and ends, probably in the neighborhood of 5,000 U.S. and NATO troops. In addition, a conventional force component would be needed to serve as a quick reaction force, provide security for the bases, and protect convoys. A conservative estimate for this force would be a brigade or regimental combat team, giving a battalion to each base, another 4,000, roughly. For additional air support, two squadrons of fighter-bombers (F-15E, A-10, etc.) would probably be sufficient, adding another 2,000 personnel.
Finally, my proposed posture would require additional staff, logistics, and support personnel (medical for instance), some but not all of which can be contractors, adding another 2,000 military personnel. This would be a total force of about 13,000 military personnel and some number of supporting intelligence community personnel and contractors. This is a high-end estimate, and some military personnel I have spoken to think this mission could be done with half this number of troops, but the posture described above errs on the side of caution. This is small compared to the current posture in Afghanistan, smaller still than the forces implied in Gen. McChrystal's report, and tiny compared to the peak number of forces in Iraq. On the other hand, it is vastly larger than any other purely counterterrorism deployment, and how we get there from here will be the subject of my next post.
Many, of course, will find even 6,000 to 13,000 troops to be too many. I'm not at all sure that I don't find it too many. But I'm not, whatever I read, any kind of professional military person nor military expert. I'm not going to prescribe any precise plan, tempting as it is to simply recommend that we go down to a Marine guard at an embassy, or not even that. But these notions of demonstration zones and smaller footprints strike me as one hell of a lot more practical, and far less open-ended, than any of the other proposals I've read. And even John Nagl writes of the ink spot strategy:
[...] The alternative requires not just more troops but a different strategy. After an area is cleared of insurgents, it must be held by Afghan troops supported by American advisers and combat multipliers, including artillery and air support. Inside this bubble of security, the Afghan government can re-establish control and build a better and more prosperous community with the help of a surge of American civilian advisers. Since 30,000 more troops won't be enough to secure the whole country, we'll have to select the most important population centers, such as Kabul and Kandahar, to secure first. These "oil spots" of security will then spread over time—a long time.
Let's finish our look at Dexter Filkins's piece:
[...] Last month, I visited Richard Haass, one of the idea’s chief proponents, at his office in New York, where he is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. (Before that, through June 2003, Haass was director of policy planning at the State Department under President George W. Bush.)
Haass is particularly persuasive, in part because he does not pretend to have easy answers. After eight years of mismanagement and neglect, Haass says, every choice the United States faces in Afghanistan is dreadful.
The weight of the evidence, he says, suggests that curtailing our ambitions is the option least dreadful. “It’s not self-evident that doing more will accomplish more,” Haass told me. “And I’m skeptical about how central Afghanistan is anymore to the global effort against terror. I’m not persuaded that you can transform the situation there.”
The bulk of Al Qaeda’s leadership, Haass pointed out, is now in Pakistan. That’s where the United States should really be focused — in Pakistan, with a population six times larger than Afghanistan’s and with at least 60 nuclear warheads. “No one wants Afghanistan to become a sponge that absorbs a disproportionate share of our country’s resources,” he said.
Let's not let Afghanistan continue to be a sponge to soak up a never-ending flow of the blood of our young women and men.
How bad could that get? In August of 2008, Brandon Friedman pointed out:
Afghanistan is now deadlier than Iraq ever was.
When the Iraq War reached its deadliest peak during a 10-week period in April, May, and June of 2007, 308 coalition troops died. That was 1 out of every 575 troops on the ground at the time.* It was a terrible period in which even the most die-hard Bush supporters began to question the sense in continuing the occupation. By contrast, 105 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan during the past 10 weeks. But because there are only 52,700 troops in Afghanistan, this represents 1 out of every 502 troops on the ground.
The war in Iraq--at its most violent peak--was never as dangerous for our troops as Afghanistan now is.
The fatality rate in Afghanistan during the past 10 weeks would be equivalent to 353 deaths in Iraq at the same time--a rate not even seen during the bloody crescendo of 2007.
[...] In August 2009, a soldier in Afghanistan was more than 16 times as likely to get killed as a soldier in Iraq. So far this year, 242 soldiers have died in Afghanistan compared to 128 in Iraq though there are just over half as many troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
In fact, Afghanistan is overall the more lethal conflict for soldiers on the ground, according to the analysis of the ratio of troop deaths from 2002 to September 2009, with an average monthly ratio of more than 42 deaths per 100,000 troops compared to 39 in Iraq. Though many more troops have died in Iraq -- 4349 compared to 873 in Afghanistan as of Monday -- the ratio remains higher in Afghanistan due to the far-smaller U.S. troop levels in that country. (The ratio still pales in comparison to previous wars -- by some estimates, the Vietnam War ratio of deaths per 100,000 was more than 10 times higher: 667.)
There are charts at that link.
How is our Army holding up, by the way? Sleight of hand semi-conceals the answer:
In fact, however, fewer people joined the Army this year than last year. The Army exceeded its recruitment goals not because recruitment went up but rather because recruitment goals were lowered.
See Kaplan's article for more details. Meanwhile, journalists prepare to say Goodbye Baghdad, Hello Kabul. And how's that drone war going in Afghanistan? Up to 320 Civilians Killed in Pakistan Drone War.
And we're still shaky on the intel -- not being so shaky is, you'll recall, one of the rationales for a large footprint in Afghanistan -- resulting in our killing al Qaeda leaders who inconveniently hold press conferences as to how they've alive.
If you'd like to consider an unconventional idea for the Afghanistan problem, how about turning it over to the Chinese?
[...] There's a fair bit to like in such a plan, for almost all concerned. The US gets out of a quagmire intact, China gets resources and the chance to act like a super-power. Russia gets regional stability, the other SCO nations get increased trade and the opportunity to act beneficially on the world stage. Pakistan gets strategic depth. The main losers would be Al Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban and India. The latter would need some pretty big economic carrots from China and America to swallow losing short-term influence in Afghanistan to its Chinese rival. But India would benefit too from removal of Pakistan's reasons to use proxies and in the longer term from the chance to grow into the super-power it should be without having to waste energy on Pakistan or China for at least a couple of decades.
Steve Hynd thinks the Chinese "will propose some solution along these lines sometime in the next 12 months." Check with him to see if he's taking bets. Another option:
[...] US and Western troops should leave. But because Afghanistan will remain dependent on international aid for development and security, troops cannot leave without something to fill the vacancy.
The solution? Muslim and regional states must fill the void.
The Organization of the Islamic Conference, the association of more than four dozen Muslim states, should set up an Afghanistan contact group, led by Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The group would lead a coalition of Muslim states responsible for political reconciliation, peacekeeping, economic development, and governmental capacity building in Afghanistan.
Wealthy Muslim states such as Malaysia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates can provide funding. Members of NATO and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China and Russia, can also contribute donations and offer expertise.
But the military presence must be limited to personnel from Muslim states. Given Afghanistan's problematic relations with its neighbors, peacekeepers should come from nonneighboring Muslim states, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan, and Turkey.
Many of those nations have valuable experience to offer. Bangladesh, for example, is a leading troop contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions. Turkey (a NATO member) and the UAE already have a physical presence in Afghanistan. Peacekeeping in Afghanistan would be a natural extension of their present foreign missions.
Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey have the most developed bureaucracies and armies among Muslim states. They can help train the Afghan civil, foreign, and security services. A Muslim-led mission in Afghanistan would offer middle powers such as Egypt and Turkey an opportunity to revitalize regional leadership roles they once had. It would also provide regional rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia with a platform to constructively resolve a problem integral to their security concerns and interests.
And a number of international organizations, such as the Islamic Development Bank as well as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, should help continue to rebuild Afghanistan's economy.
Yeah, I'm not going to hold my breath on this, either.
But ultimately a huge American commitment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan is unsustainable.
The threat to the U.S. that we're allegedly suppressing is immensely unclear at best.
The cost that is being proposed we pay, in blood, and treasure, is far too high.
And fewer families should have to visit that chapel at Fort Carson.
-- Gary Farber, not Eric Martin. Many thanks to Eric for this opportunity!