December 9, 2010 — Tens of thousands of U.S. Special Operations and conventional forces, drone strikes and intelligence operatives. At least $25 billion per year, spent indefinitely. That’s what the Obama Pentagon’s favorite think tank considers necessary for a violent Afghanistan after most NATO troops depart.
In a bleak report released yesterday, retired Lieutenant General David Barno and Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security essentially reject the prospects for a successful conclusion to the war by 2014, when Afghan forces are supposed to take the lead for securing their country. After then, they project, the “wicked problem” of Afghanistan will require a Special Operations Forces-led team of up to 35,000 troops for “direct combat actions against al Qaeda and its allies’ core capabilities.” So much for the Obama administration — or its successors — getting out of Afghanistan, which the think-tankers consider too dangerous an option.
Notice what those residual troops wouldn’t be doing: counterinsurgency. While the Center for a New American Security built its early reputation as a hub of counterinsurgency scholarship and advocacy — its focus is now much broader than that — the twilight war plan put forward by Barno and Exum is about finding and killing insurgents, not securing the Afghans. That’ll be necessary if the U.S. is to have a “more sustainable” force structure in Afghanistan than the 98,000 troops on the ground now, and the hope is for Afghan soldiers and police to pick up the slack. Counterinsurgency “will primarily belong to the [Afghans] while [counterterrorism] will largely belong to the United States.”
Here’s how Barno, a former commander of the war, and Exum, an Afghanistan veteran who advised General Stanley McChrystal’s 2009 strategy review, see their residual force working. Most bases will be handed over to the Afghans by 2014 — even the sprawling Kandahar Air Field will have only modest U.S. elements remaining, like parts of a combat aviation brigade. Organized into a task force for “unconventional warfare” and largely based out of Kabul and Bagram Air Field, the remaining U.S. troops will focus on “strikes and ‘kill/capture’ raids” against insurgents and a much-reduced effort to mentor Afghan forces. There will be smaller and more temporary U.S. presences on the porous border with Pakistan. The Air Force will maintain “an extensive array of unmanned drones and intelligence assets,” with some “limited fighter/attack aircraft” remaining. U.S. allies would add between 5,000 to 10,000 support troops to the residual force, and NATO would spend the period between July 2011 and July 2014 gradually transitioning to such a force structure.
If anything, that sounds reminiscent of Vice President Biden’s “Counterterrorism-Plus” plan that lost out in administration debates in 2009. There are important differences between the two options: Biden’s plan de-emphasized fighting the Taliban, which Barno and Exum consider a necessary future mission, and would have used far fewer combat troops and support elements than their residual force entails. Indeed, Barno and Exum call for devoting up to 20 percent of all “operational SOF teams worldwide” to Afghanistan. But ultimately, the residual mission is along the lines of what Biden advocated — implemented later.
And that represents a few implicit concessions. Barno and Exum are agnostic on whether the administration’s troop surge and counterinsurgency strategy actually worked, writing that it’s still too early to tell. Exum was a skeptic of drone strikes in Pakistan, but his strategy accepts a role for the strikes on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. More broadly, the two think-tankers write that al-Qaeda and its allies will be able to survive as long as Pakistan doesn’t do more to end their safe havens in the tribal areas, and they call on the U.S. to threaten to cut off financial aid to compel the Pakistanis to do so. (Relatedly, they consider basing the drone program entirely out of Afghanistan if Pakistan doesn’t become more compliant to U.S. demands.)
If that sounds like Barno and Exum don’t envision a “well-defined end” to the war, it’s probably because they don’t. Their strategy moves the U.S. war in Afghanistan into a phase more like smaller, shadowy counterterrorism operations worldwide, if resourced much more heavily. And they believe that’s what the American public has gotten used to at this point. “The citizens of the United States realize that the post-September 11th world demands some Americans — most often intelligence operatives and Special Operations Forces — to be engaged in wars fought in the shadows from remote corners of the globe.” And a long-term presence in Afghanistan is “one of the legacies” of the 9/11 attacks.
Next week, the Obama administration will conclude a review of the past year in Afghanistan and begin thinking about how to structure a transition to Afghan control beginning next July. The Center for a New American Security matriculated a number of scholars into the Defense and State Departments, most importantly Michele Flournoy, the co-founder of the think tank who’s now Pentagon policy chief. Barno and Exum’s paper may take a bleak view of the war — and, tacitly, the administration’s efforts there — but it’s likely to get an attentive audience within the administration.Related: