December 14, 2011

New Afghanistan Plan: Less U.S. Fighting, More Training

Starting next year, commanders in Afghanistan will significantly revise their strategy, out of the recognition that they need to prepare their Afghan partners to take over the war much, much faster. Done right, it’ll mean a smooth handover to Afghan soldiers and cops in 2014. Done wrong, it’ll concede much of the country to the insurgency and won’t prep the Afghans to handle their own security.

Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, revealed his new plan on Tuesday. As the surge forces return home by late summer, Allen will split his continuing deployments between waging the war directly and embedding U.S. troops in Afghan units. The idea reflects a warning, issued last week by the influential Center for a New American Security, that the NATO coalition simply won’t prepare Afghan units to take over the war in 2014 if it spends most of its time until then fighting the war itself.

Allen’s move addresses a clear problem. Current NATO training for Afghan units focuses on the front end: getting the Afghans through boot camp and the officer academy. It doesn’t emphasize mentoring the Afghans once they get into the fight. That’s why in practice, U.S. units often get the worst of both worlds: having to fight beside subpar Afghan soldiers — not a single battalion of which can operate independently.

Last week, the Center for a New American Security attributed that problem to a structural flaw in U.S. strategy. As long as commanders at the company, battalion and brigade level are charged with waging the war directly, they’ll look to their own units to get the job done. Unless Allen started tasking his commanders to eat, sleep, breathe and fight with the Afghans, warned analysts Andrew Exum and David Barno, the Afghans would crack under the pressure of taking over the war in 2014, when a only a reduced U.S. force will remain in the country.

Allen’s strategy shift essentially blesses Exum and Barno’s paper. Most of it, anyway.

Exum and Barno advocated a sharper shift than Allen proved to be comfortable with. They want U.S. troops across Afghanistan to stop waging the war directly after the surge ends next summer. (With some caveats for forces hunting insurgent cells.) Allen’s plan calls for phasing in the increased partnering with the Afghans, while U.S. forces stay on the warpath in the east and consolidate their gains in the south.

That might not be enough to solve the structural problem. “My worry,” Exum said during a December 5 talk with reporters, “is if you give a [U.S.] commander an excuse not to partner, he’ll take it. There’s always a good tactical reason for [Afghan] forces not to be in the lead.”

But there’s an understandable reason why Exum and Barno’s timeline was too fast for Allen. Eastern Afghanistan has gotten more dangerous, not less, in the last two years as U.S. shifted the war’s center of gravity southward and the Pakistanis allowed insurgent safe havens on their side of the border fester. Shifting too rapidly to a train-first strategy risks conceding east Afghanistan to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. For that matter, it also risks leaving southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces vulnerable to a resurgent Taliban.

It’s a serious dilemma for a decade-long war, and one that doesn’t lend itself to easy decisions. Exum says that Allen ought to have “leeway” in how he strikes the balance — but that the commander also has to pay close attention to how his subordinates strike it, too.

“I think he is going to need to take a personal interest in making sure this change happens,” Exum tells Danger Room. “His commander’s intent will need to be clear to units in the field, and he will need to supervise subordinate commanders to ensure this is actually happening.”

As 2012 dawns — and with it, the end of the Afghanistan surge — Allen lacks two major and interlocked conditions to end the war successfully. First, there’s no political strategy to negotiate a peace; second, relations with Pakistan, where insurgents have safe haven, have spiraled downward.

Moving rapidly to improve Afghan troops’ capacity to fight shows that Allen’s focused on the best endgame available. But it’s going to be hard to balance the immediate need to fight the war against the long-term need to have the Afghans fight it in 2014. And after a decade of war, even getting that balance right might still not be enough.