Has our strategy really changed in Afghanistan? 

The announced “new” strategy of the Obama administration, given this March in a speech at West Point, was a counter-insurgency strategy. That was the justification for the surge in Afghanistan – to put more boots on the ground to enable the “clear, hold and secure the population” that is called for by classic counter-insurgency doctrine.

There was also a concurrent counter-terrorist strategy at work as well. Simply - identify, find and kill the Taliban and give a priority to killing their leadership.

Counter-insurgency was given the priority mission with counter-terrorism as the secondary priority. However, that doesn’t seem to be the way things are working out there. While CI may still be the official number one priority strategy, it appears to be foundering. On the other hand, our CT strategy seems to be working very well.

In fact, it is so effective the New York Times reports that intelligence sources have said that the Taliban leadership is in turmoil.  Interrogations of captured Taliban have revealed that lower level Taliban leaders are not eager to move up into the higher levels of command.  It apparently is considered tantamount to a death sentence. Consequently, current leadership is spread thin and not as effective as it once was. 

The counter-insurgency side of things, a much more complex operation than counter-terrorism, has been handicapped by many problems, not the least of which is a self-imposed withdrawal deadline of June of next year. Anyone at all familiar with the problems in Afghanistan knows full well that a year is not at all enough time to accomplish what is necessary to succeed in a counter-insurgency strategy. Part of what makes CI work is a buy-in by the local leadership and population. They take a stake in the outcome. But with no assurance that the US and the Karzai government will be there in a year if they side with them, they’ve been very reluctant to commit.

Meanwhile, for the same reason, the Karzai government is vigorously exploring avenues of accommodation with the Taliban and eventually their inclusion within the Afghani government. Again, per the New York Times, the “campaign to convert lower-level and midlevel Taliban fighters has finally begun in earnest.”  President Karzai has signed a decree authorizing the attempt at reintegration. $300 million dollars from Japan, other allies and the US has been committed to the campaign.  Soon, as the Times reports, US military officers will begin to hand out the money in an effort to lure away those “insurgents” who are essentially mercenaries fighting because it is the best paying job they can find.

All of this points to a couple of things.  One, of course, is the damage the set withdrawal date has done to the President’s own mission. Marja and Kandahar, which were supposed to be the centerpiece examples of how the CI strategy would work, are simply not showing anywhere near the expected success. Part of that is because, as stated, the locals aren’t about to bet their lives on whether or not the US will still be there in a year.

What it also indicates is the faction within the administration that favored the counter-terrorism role, led by VP Joe Biden, may be winning out. Biden’s preference was for finding and killing the enemy leaders. That appears to be the new unannounced strategy if recent testimony before Congress by incoming Central Command commander Gen. James N. Mattis is any indication.  When asked by Sen. Jack Reed of RI “whether the administration’s July 2011 date for starting to withdraw American troops implied a shift in emphasis from counterinsurgency to a strategy concentrating on killing terrorists,” the general replied, “I think that is the approach, Senator.”

If it is “the approach” that means the administration has virtually given up on the counter-insurgency strategy, probably finally recognizing that the self-inflicted wound of the set withdrawal date has forever crippled that effort. Instead, it has shifted the focus and priority toward counter-terrorism

In the long run, that may end up being the smart thing to do. Our efforts there have met with very limited success and the future isn’t looking much brighter. Maybe we and the Afghans would be better served if we let the Afghans figure out their own internal politics while we keep the pressure on the bad guys by killing their leaders and, hopefully, forcing them to the negotiating table. 

In an insane war, that may end up be the most sane approach in terms of blood, treasure and outcome.

About The Author

Bruce McQuain

Retired infantry officer with 28 years service who blogs regularly at QandO.net on politics and BlackFive.net on military affairs.
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Wednesday, Nov 25, 2015


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