Archive for ISAF

Winding Down in Afghanistan?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, US Domestic Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by whatafteriraq

With the deficit ceiling crisis dominating the headlines (copmpeting with the Anthony murder trial and Murdoch family travails), events in Afghanistan have taken on a diminished level of public attention. Hamid Karzai’s half-brother, the poster child of corruption in the country, is murdered with scarcely a ripple, an apparent business-as-usual occurrence in the war (and country) that the United States has chosen to forget. But change may finally be in the wind, a breeze that will, with some luck, fill the sails for the American desert schooner to make its way out of that country’s morass.

The symbol of that change in the past week has been the changing of the guard at the Interntional Security Assistance Force/US Forces in Afghanistan (ISAF/USFOR-A) from General David Petraeus to Marine General John R. Allen. The move has enormous potential symbolic value. Petraeus has been the symbol of the American commitment to graft an apparently successful (apparently because the success will only be determined sometime in the future) counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy from Iraq to Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons, that application has been less than a total success; if anything, it more closely resembles the path to total failure. By hanging up his uniform and hopping aboard the plane for Washington and the directorship of the CIA, Petraeus has successfully extricated himself from the apparent impossibility to succeeding in Afghanistan, and the United States government can now quietly shelve the entire facade of COIN there and concentrate on the more pressing and realistic task of sneaking out of that country with minimal loss of face. General Allen has been given the unenviable task of overseeing this operation. He must have wanted the work pretty badly to have taken it.

Allen arrives with only a little COIN baggage, having served in Anbar Province in Iraq as part of the Sunni Awakening project that converted (or bought off) Sunni rebels who had been fighting the United States to fight Al Qaeda instead. Otherwise, he has held a variety of posts in the field, in Washington, and at Special Forces Command in Tampa. One of the most interesting notes on his resume is that he was the first Marine officer to command the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, a rare honor given the Navy’s proprietary attitude toward its academy. Accepting his new command, he has shown no illusions about the difficulty he faces which, in essence, is to try to preserve the illusion of progress with diminished resources as the American government quietly folds its tent and writesd off this particular quixotic adventure.

The official position of the Obama administration is that the United States will retain forces in Afghanistan through 2014, but don’t count on it, for several reasons. First, by now virtually everyone knows that Afghanistan is a mission impossible and that any real “victory” there is impossible regardless of how long we stay. Secretary Gates’ warning about abandoning the effort when we are “on the two-yard line” and ready to punch the ball in for the touchdown has virtually no resonance anymore; there is no indication gthat successor Leon Panetta has any particular passion for the Afghan task. Instead, the pressure, largely driven by negative public opinion fueled partially by wanting to get rid of the expense of Afghanistan (and Iraq) militates toward a faster withdrawal as long as the economy suffers. The last ditch of rationale for staying is that if we were to bring all the veterans home tomorrow, we would have no jobs for them, and they would contribute to the unemployment crisis. That is true, but unemployment benefits are cheaper than combat pay and support if we choose to extend any benefits to them (not to be taken as a given).

Given the polar positions of the parties on the deficit and debt, the only way to continue supporting the war is to find new money to pay for it. Paul Ryan and his hardy little band of libertarian fanatics, is not going to allow added taxation for such purposes, and AARP would have something to say about raiding entitlement programs to pay to kill Afghans. No new money in this case probably means the war effort is the victim. RIP.

Moreover, next year is–gasp!–an election year. It is hardly prescient to argue that the economic mess will dominate that event, and the war will only enter into it in small ways. For one thing, virtually everybody will argue that winding it down will save money that can be invested better domestically. Unfortunately, think of the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War. For another, the country is turning inward, and overseas involvements–especially expensive ones where Americans get killed for dubious gain–are not high on the agenda any candidate is likely to want to defend. Obama is stuck with the war because he escalated it (a decision I suspect he would like to have back), and thus must put on the brave face that we are actually accomplishing enough so that we can withdraw without abandoning our goals and admitting we have done all this essentially for nothing (which, arguably, we have). Even very conservative, pro-defense Republicans are not going to tie their fate to the war. The war has become a political pariah, and will likely be so treated in the 2012 campaign.

These dynamics suggest to me that the “schedule” for drawing down the American commitment will be accelerated between now and November 2012. The war, quite frankly, has no voting constituency and can be abandoned without short-term political consequences (the only kind that are really important in an election year). By election day, look for an American troop commitment about half what is projected today and an Obama pledge (which the GOP nominee, whoever that may be, will not publicly contravene) to get it down to zero combat troops sometime in 2013.

General Allen, of course, gets to oversee all this, while David Petraeus hunkers down in his Washington lawyer pin-striped suit at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. Wish Allen well; he’s going to need all the help he can get.


Afghan Withdrawal by 2014

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan and Election, Afghanistan War, U.S. defense budget, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on November 21, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The NATO summit occurred this past week in Lisbon, and the major news that came out of it was that NATO ministers agreed to continue the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF, the technical name of the mission there). According to the comminique at the end of the meeting, the focus of the agreement was to continue the commitment of declining numbers (unspecified) into 2014, when all combat tasks will have been turned over to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), leaving only a residue of NATO noncombatants (including American troops) behind. In other words, an Iraq-style drawdown and post-combat situation whre the U.S. is out but not out simultaneously.

This settlement, as it is chewed upon, regurgitated, and swallowed, is likely to please nobody, most of all the Afghans themselves (the Taliban has already called the decision “irrational”). People (myself included) who believe the active involvement of the United States should end much faster, are going to maintain that leaving NATO forces on the front lines will accomplish little substantively and simply represent greater human and material sacrifice for the troops and the Afghans themselves while not materially improving the prospects for the post-war peace. If one believes the war is unwinnable, as I do, three or more years of combat is a tragic waste. The NATO conferees anticipated this reaction (which will be more pronounced in other NATO countries than in the U.S.) and offered the bone that “if circumstances agree, it (withdrawal of combat troops) could be sooner.” How about tomorrow?

Critics on the other end of the spectrum will also be unhappy because of the simple fact of establishing any kind of deadline. Their consistent refrain about such deadlines (in Iraq, for instance) is that they simply encourage the opponent to wait out whatever the deadline is, wait for us to leave, then seize the moment. In their minds, setting a deadline is little more than a deferred form of surrender. 2014 is sufficiently far enough away so this objection will not be loudly raised at this point, but as the date grows nearer, it will. This criticism, of course, is only valid if one accepts the proposition that the war is in fact winnable in some sense, if one is perseverant enough to pursue it long enough. We are, after all, still hearing this argument about Vietnam, which has been over for 35 years.

The designation of 2014 also must be viewed through the lens of 2012–the next presidential year. It is a curious choice that, like so many the Obama administration has made recently, appeals neither to his core constituency or probably to the independent middle. Obama supporters on the left are pretty uniformly disappointed in Obama’s Afghan policy and want out now. The “shallow” withdrawals that NATO describes for 2011 are going to make them unhappier than they already are. It will not drive them into the arms of the Tea/GOP candidate, who is likely to adopt a “stay the course” position on Afghanistan, but it could make them less enthusiastic supporters of the campaign or even, at worst, cause them to sit out the election. The date is also unlikely to win any support from the right, which opposes any specification of withdrawal dates and would not vote for Obama if he promised to stay in Afghanistan for another 50 years.

That leaves the swing vote in the middle. They voted for Obama in 2008 and against him in 2010. Nobody seems to want to court them very badly. They are almost certainly going to be repelled by the Libertarian nut jobs the Tea Party has foisted upon the Congress, and they are generally less than enthusiastic about the deficits the administration is running up–part of which, of course, are powered by the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Which way they go in 2012 will determine who enters or stays in the Oval Office in 2013. The shape of the economy (and especially the unemployment rate) will likely determine who they vote for, but Afghanistan will play a part as well, on two grounds. First, budget cutting/balancing is going to be a major part of the 2012 campaign, and by then, the public may well have figured out that anything like a balanced budget is impossible without a major defense contribution. But where does that contribution come from? Since Americans also overwhelmingly say they favor a robust defense, they will not support major cuts in ongoing defense expenditures. If that is true, where can one look for cuts? Afghanistan virtually jumps off the page of candidates. Second, if the war continues to go poorly (as it likely will), the middle may decide overwhelmingly that they want it to end. Would Obama buck such sentiment?

The most hopeful interpretation of the 2014 deadline is that those who chose it did so because they know they are going to exceed it. The Afghans fairly clearly do not want us around for three more years, and most of the NATO allies join American public opinion in that assessment. A 2014 withdrawal date is dismal news–the worst case–and if we can exceed that expectation and bring the troops home sooner, wouldn’t that be grand? And wouldn’t we be grateful when we enter the voting place (assuming much of this happens before November 2012)? Does this all sound kind of cynical? Yes it does, but given the mess we are in right now, any shard of hope is to be grasped.

A Hint of “Afghanistanization”?

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Foreign policy and 2008 election with tags , , , , , , on February 22, 2009 by whatafteriraq

The policy of the Obama administration toward Afghanistan is clearly a work in progress. On one hand, the President campaigned on the notion that the United States had “dropped the ball” on Afghanistan by going into Iraq, suggesting at least indirectly that he would pick the ball back up and turn his attention toward Afghanistan. The “mini-surge” of 17,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan announced in the past week or so seems to bolster that interpretation.On the other hand, the President has also announced that he intends to reduce budget deficits and that a major contributor to that effort will be reductions in spending on Iraq and Afghanistan. What is going on here?

One possibility is that the administration is going to adopt the Vietnamization/Iraqification approach taken by its predecessors. Clearly, it will never be called this–and the term is long, clunky, and inherently difficult to say aloud–but we may be looking at a new policy of Afghanistanization. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, standing in front of a podium in Ottawa at his joint press conference with President Obama,may have offered the initial gambit, running up the “flagpole” the idea of turning over the war to the Afghans as Obama stood impassively behind him,  neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

What did Harper say? His reply came in response to a question about whether the PM had decided to extend the Canadian military participation in the NATO-led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) beyond its scheduled withdrawal in 2011 (an additional commitment Obama denied asking for). While Harper did not answer that question directly, he did offer a Canadian view of Afghan strategy that sounded a lot like a withdrawal.

Harper emphasized two points. The first was to redouble efforts to train, equip, and prepare the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take over responsibility for combating the insurgency. Sound familiar? The second was to move toward more economic and developmental rather than military aid as a way to undercut Afghan support for the Taliban. In other words, he advocated a strategy for the gradual winding down of Canadian–and by extension other western–military involvement in a conflict that almost no one thinks can be won by outside military forces.

This statement of Canadian policy must, of course, be put into context. Like most of the non-American NATO countries in ISAF, the Canadians have been progressively disabused of any notions of triumph in Afghanistan, face domestic political opposition to continuing, and want to pull out. The Canadians, however, have been among a relatively few NATO allies who have provided meaningful combat–as opposed to support–troops, leading some Americans on the ground to refer to ISAF as “I saw Americans fighting.” This policy statement, in other words, plays well in Canada.

If the President really wants to reduce budget deficits, it should play well in the United States as well. Published reports suggest U.S. spemding in Iraq and Afghanistan will approach $200 billion this year, and cutting back in both places thus has economic benefits, as well as assuaging a Democratic Party base none too enthused about either war. It will also be opposed on the grounds that it amounts to selling out the Afghans and asuring the success of the Taliban.

Will a policy change to Afghanistanization work? The precedents are not encouraging. Vietnamization was an obvious utter failure, and Iraqification remains an open question. For the policy to work in Afghanistan, it would have to accomplish two ends. Once again, the prospects are not entirely enocuraging.

The first thing it must do is result in a sustainable Afghan government, which very roughly means one the Afghan people will support more than the alternative. That did not happen in South Vietnam, and it is still an open question whether the al-Maliki government of Iraq will find enough support outside the Shiite majority to remain viable. 

In Afghanistan, the question is even more problematical. Recent polling suggests that only about 15 percent of Afghans would vote for American-backed president Hamid Karzai, even though 90 percent say they oppose the Taliban. It is not clear who, if anyone, they do favor. A majority, however, do agree they want the United States out of the country.

The other pillar of a successful policy of withdrawal in Afghanistan is the emergence of the ANA as a fource capable of imposing and enforcing the peace. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) could not do so, because it lacked popular support (among other things), and it is not clear whether Iraqi security forces will become adequately ethnically diverse to do the job in Iraq. If Iraqi security and armed forces remain the province of the Shiites, it is hard to see either the Sunnis or Kurds remaining quiescent.

This problem exists in spades for the ANA. The problem, as suggested earlier in this space, is ethnic composition. It is probably revealing that the Afghans, with apparent American acquiesence, have suppressed ethnic statistics about the ANA since about 2005. This suggests there may be something to hide, and that probably is the disproportionate participation of Tajiks in the armed forces, with consequent under-representation of the Pashtun plurality in the country. If the armed force of Afghanistan is considered internally as an anti-Pashtun force, its chances of serving as a stabilizing force approach zero and the ANA remains part of the problem, not of the solution.

Is Afghanistanization where U.S. policy is headed? It may prove the least worst solution. Military victory by foreigners in Afghanistan defies history, the status quo has produced the current desperation in which not even Kabul is secure, and it is not clear how much difference a few more Americans will make (especially if they replace departing NATO allies). The Aiken solution (declare victory, leave, and let those who remain figure out what victory means) is too cynical, and that leaves crafting a fig leaf policy behind which to leave under the least worst circumstances. It may not be much, but it may be the best one can do in a situation one should never have gotten into in the first place.