December 05, 2011

Analysts: Switch US troops to advisory mission in Afghanistan in 2012

WASHINGTON – Afghanistan is no longer the United States’ war to win, analysts from an influential Washington think tank said Monday, advocating a U.S. policy shift that would quickly transition U.S. troops to advisory and support roles while pushing Afghans to the lead in combat.

With the clock ticking on U.S. combat involvement in Afghanistan, the United States should end the current counterinsurgency mission by October, when U.S. surge forces are scheduled to be out of the country. The United States should switch to a “security force assistance” mission that sets Afghan forces up for success against the Taliban and Haqqani Network after 2014, according to a policy brief by the Center for a New American Security, a group with strong ties to the Obama administration and the Pentagon.

“Because U.S. units can execute counterinsurgency operations better and faster than their Afghan counterparts, they are continuing to do so despite the looming transition,” the CNAS paper said. “Afghan forces must move more rapidly to take the lead in Afghanistan while the United States and its allies still have significant numbers of troops and enablers in the country.”

American commanders, focused on short-term results, sensibly rely on their own superior troops, said co-author Andrew Exum, a CNAS senior fellow and a former Army Ranger who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“There’s a sense the Afghan commanders aren’t ready, and there a sense we’re going to assume a lot of risk [by relying heavily on Afghans],” he told reporters Monday. While there is truth in those beliefs, he said, the result may be that crucial developmental steps for Afghan combat forces are left until 2015, when there will be far less backup from American and coalition troops.

Although partnering between American and Afghan troops is official doctrine, on a recent trip to Afghanistan, “there was no question anywhere we visited who was in the lead in these operations,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, a CNAS senior advisor and coauthor of the report.

The Pentagon should establish a command within U.S. Special Operations Command devoted to developing and fielding military advisors, the authors wrote.

And while it will be risky, troops on the ground should begin embedding with Afghan units rather than the more common paradigm, where, Exum said, “Often it’s a few Afghans in a truck behind you as you go off to fight the enemy.”