December 10, 2010

Afghanistan Trip Report, Part I: BLUF

As readers of this blog know, I have been in Afghanistan for the past 10 days wandering around the country, speaking to everyone from Afghan government officials to aid workers to NATO military officers to Afghan policemen to Afghan parliamentarians to ... you get the point. I will be here for another few days hanging out with some journalists and civilian researchers in Kabul to hear their take on the war and the greater political situation before heading back to the United States next week.

The purpose of this post is to highlight some initial observations, which I will then explore in greater detail in further blog posts beginning next week. I have not yet finished gathering evidence, but I have spent all the time I am going to spend outside Kabul and with Afghan and NATO military units, and I do not expect these initial observations to change too much between now and the time I depart.

Bottom Line Up Front: There is cause for much encouragement about the way in which this conflict is being fought at the tactical and operational levels. There is an equal amount of cause for pessimism when confronted with remaining strategic obstacles, both of which concern the insurgency's ability to regenerate.

Caveat Emptor: First, I analyze this conflict as a specialist in small wars and insurgencies -- not as an expert in the culture, peoples and history of Afghanistan. So I am strongest, if I may say so, in my analysis of security conditions and weakest in terms of my analysis of political trends or Afghan culture. Second, I traveled here as an invited guest of the ISAF command, which asked me to provide feedback on NATO operations. The command gave me all the support I desired to see the things I wanted to see, but of course the reason I am staying an extra few days to speak to people outside the ISAF "bubble" is because I understand how the ISAF "lens" is only one of many lenses through which one can analyze this conflict. (Which is one of the reasons they bring in mischievous outsiders like me to question their assumptions in the first place.)

I'll start with the many, many good things I have seen while here. (All of this, of course, is based on a limited but considerable sample size.):

1. Our intelligence at the tactical level is greatly improved. Eighteen months ago, as I traveled around Afghanistan for the former commander here, intelligence officers were outstanding in terms of providing information on the enemy: size, disposition, composition, most likely course of action, etc. When it came to providing political intelligence on "white actors" or explaining local tribal dynamics, though, most intelligence officers did not have much to offer. What a difference 18 months makes. This time around, when an intelligence officer began a briefing, he or she usually began by explaining the human geography of their area of operations and only later focused on the insurgency as a part of that human geography. I am so impressed with how sophisticated the analysis provided by intelligence officers today is when compared with not too long ago.

2. Counterinsurgency, as practiced at the tactical level, is the best I have ever seen it practiced. Again, I was tremendously impressed with some of the battalions I spent time with. Yesterday, Ranger Jeff Martindale took me up and down the Arghandab River Valley and allowed me to spend some time with one of his companies. I came away really impressed with the company commander, the ODA team leader, the platoon leaders, and the noncommissioned officers fighting in the northern ARV. Really, really sophisticated, and in high spirits as they're going about their work. This was an armored company doing this mission in the light infantry country of the ANV, so their efforts were all the more impressive for that. As an aside, I'll concede that this armor unit is probably losing some of their gunnery skills while in Afghanistan. But make no mistake: U.S. combat arms units are doing a lot of killing of the Taliban in Afghanistan and running the kind of complex, kinetic operations that would knock the socks of a JRTC O/C. So this idea that U.S. soldiers have lost their "warrior spirit" on account of counterinsurgency or have forgotten how to fight conventionally is nonsense. These men are calling for fire, coordinating assaults, and killing Taliban every day of the week under conditions worlds more demanding than anything a U.S. unit went through at the NTC or JRTC in the 1990s. Anyone who thinks U.S. soldiers sit around passing out Snickers bars all day as part of counterinsurgency operations needs to visit the Arghandab.

3. The coordination between special operations forces and general purpose forces is the best I have ever seen it. This applies across the entire theater. I have been traveling with Col. (Ret.) Pete Mansoor, and I have been joking with Pete, who was a brigade commander in Iraq when I was a Ranger platoon leader there, how far we have come from the days when I used to make his life so miserable by conducting late-night raids and leaving him the mess to clean up. SOF and GPF are fighting one fight -- and they are together having a devastating effect on the leadership of the insurgency. Simply stunning.

Now for the bad news:

1. We have two "Achilles heels" in the current strategy: Afghan governance and insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan. What these two weaknesses have in common is their combined effect on the ability of insurgent ranks, which have been decimated this year, to regenerate either through sanctuaries (to include external support) or by exploiting grievances caused by bad governance. I'm going to be honest and say that I do not see a coherent or otherwise effective strategy for dealing with the sanctuaries in Pakistan. I do not see it anywhere in the U.S. government or within NATO, whose writ only extends to the borders of Afghanistan anyway. With respect to governance, I have seen some isolated rays of hope at the local level, but it is easy to see how, as long as Afghans consider their country the third most corrupt country on Earth and look elsewhere for the rule of law, insurgents will continue to recruit and recover their losses.

2. We might not be taking governance as seriously as we should if we want to win. If I were to land in Afghanistan having never visited before and were asked what the international community values in terms of its objectives, I would argue that based on what I can observe -- to include the metrics tracked and the resources allocated -- killing the enemy is vastly more important than fixing local governance. That may be okay, but a lot of smart analysts argue that we have thus far failed in Afghanistan because we have not taken governance seriously enough.

3. The interests of the international community and the interests of GIRoA might seriously diverge as we begin to transition. Transition, for the United States and others, means turning over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan. Transition, as I am hearing Afghans explain it, means creating a functional state with the infrastructure to support its economic growth and meet the expectations of its people. Someone, I suspect, is going to end up really disappointed. No prizes for guessing who.

Again, I will expand on all of this in posts next week and will also explore other topics. Take this analysis for what it is worth and in light of the caveats I supplied up front as well as any others you can think of.

Finally, there has been some silly analysis arguing that my most recent report for CNAS is a Palin-esque refudiation of counterinsurgency. I am sorry to upset my critics further, but I have never been so confident that "getting the inputs right" in 2009 (and to borrow a favorite phrase of Gen. Petraeus) was the right decision by the president and his national security staff. My paper written with Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Dave Barno is both a) a recognition that counterinsurgency does not take place in a resource vacuum and that you cannot sustain it indefinitely and that b) we have to start thinking seriously about both how we are going to transition between now and 2014 and how we protect U.S. interests beyond 2014. (Pres. Obama: "I want to start leaving in July 2011." Pres. Karzai: "I want full sovereignty by 2014." My job: To figure out how to make all that happen.) I thought that was clear, as did my friend Gulliver, with whom I have often sparred on this war. But maybe it was not. That having been said, I completely agree with a CT strategy for Afghanistan. Just, you know, in 2014 -- and after setting the necessary conditions.