December 05, 2011

The Next Fight: Time for a Mission Change in Afghanistan

LTG Dave Barno, Matt Irvine and I have a new policy paper out at CNAS, which you can read here. This paper is in a lot of ways the logical follow-on to our Responsible Transition report from December of last year, which, looking back, still seems quite relevant. (Check it out if you have the time.)

LTG Barno and I sat down with about a dozen journalists this morning and went over the particulars of new report. Our primary concern -- and the reason why we felt the need to write this report -- is that U.S. and allied commanders in Afghanistan have not yet made the mental leap that, whether they like it or not, the United States and the rest of the NATO coalition are transitioning in Afghanistan. In 2008, the situation in Afghanistan may have required large-scale counterinsurgency operations to buy time and space to build up Afghan security forces. (And I argued, in 2009, that it did.) Some would argue the situation still demands such large-scale operations, but with the transition already under way, the time to make the switch from counterinsurgency to security force assistance is sooner -- while you still have the relevant enablers in the country -- rather than in 2014. If those Afghan units you have been building are lemons, you also want to know that sooner rather than later.

Some U.S. and allied officers might argue the United States and the rest of the coalition are already working by, with and through the Afghans, but the reality on the ground suggests that is the exception, not the rule. In 2009, the NATO/ISAF command in Afghanistan stood up NTM-A to train Afghan soldiers and police, and that effort, while flawed, has been a lot more successful than what came before it. But the old training-and-advisory component of the mission was folded into the combat command in Afghanistan, and that work has since been uneven. "Partnering" -- which Gen. Stan McChrystal felt would allow Afghan units to fight alongside U.S. and allied units and thereby increase the development of the former -- never really materialized. U.S. combat units have been more proficient at finding and killing the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, so they have done the jobs themselves.

But developing security forces is like any other development work. What matters most is not whether or not the school or dam gets built but rather the process through which you take the host nation government to build a school or dam. U.S. commanders in Afghanistan now need to take short-term security risks in order to get Afghan units into the lead. The time to do this is now, not in 2014. Among the forcing mechanisms available to a president are to change the mission, change his commander, or change the resources. President Obama has already done the second and third this year. He should now do the first as well.

Anyway, read the whole report here and sound off in the comments section.