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July 30, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - It's Official
Posted by Michael Cohen

Barbara Starr has the goods:

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is expected to ask the Obama administration for additional troops and equipment, according to a senior U.S. military official familiar with Gen. Stanley McChrystal's thinking.

The request will be for troops and equipment for conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as more assets to deal with roadside bombs and explosives, said the official, who declined to be identified because McChrystal's request has not been formally transmitted to the Pentagon.

The request could be made in coming weeks after McChrystal completes a "troop-to-task review" to calculate whether there are enough U.S. troops in Afghanistan -- and the right mix of troops -- to carry out the military's war plan at an acceptable level of risk, the official said.

Obviously, none of this should be seen as a surprise; not only have we seen hints of it for a few weeks, but once General McChrystal announced in June at his Senate testimony that the US would be conducting a robust counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan this move was inevitable. After all, it has been clear for quite a while that the US military does not have enough troops - or host country support - to do a counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan.

However, the one thing that is perhaps most striking about McChrystal's coming request is how much Afghan policy has evolved over the past few months. First, you had Barack Obama campaigning for President on the argument that Iraq is the bad war, Afghanistan is the good war. (It was a point picked up and drive home by Democrats from across the political spectrum including yours truly).

Then the President came into office and ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan before conducting any sort of strategic review of Afghanistan policy. (That would qualify as the first worrisome sign that politics was not going to play an insignificant role in US-Afghan policy. But then campaign promises are campaign promises).

Then the strategic review comes in March and not surprisingly it offers support for sending more troops to Afghanistan. However, that strategic review seemed to draw an important conclusion; that creating a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan was not possible and so US policy should be focused on "disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda." The words counter-insurgency were never even used in the speech when the President announced his policy in March (although in fairness they are all over the interagency white paper).

Then a couple of weeks later, Afghan commander David McKiernan was fired and replaced by Lt. General Stanley McChrystal, because he "gets" counter-insurgency and McKiernan did not.

Then McChrystal testifies in June and tells the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US is now fighting a population centric counter-insurgency mission in Afghanistan and that protecting Afghans and lowering civilian casualties is the top mission of the US military - even though this metric goes completely unmentioned in the Af/Pak white paper put out in March as well as the President's speech (And now we're told that civilian casualties is actually less important than preventing the intimidation of civilians. Oy!)

To quote McChrystal directly, in his guidance to US troops, "Success will be defined by the Afghan people's freedom to choose their future--freedom from coercion, extremists, malign foreign influence, or abusive government actions."

These words seem to directly contradict the President's assertion that "We are not in Afghanistan to control that country or to dictate its future." But never mind and never fear because according to National Security Advisor Jim Jones, the President will have a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment if the US military has the audacity to ask for more troops:

"If there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?" Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get."

Well as we've seen that guidance didn't last very long. Meanwhile, no one bothers to ask the President in his recent news conference what exactly the policy is in Afghanistan, how long US troops are going to be there and what victory might look like. Instead we have the Secretary of State channeling Lyndon Johnson and Dick Cheney in declaring that US credibility is on the line in Afghanistan:

I think the president believes that this is not only the right strategy but facing what he faced, to withdraw our presence or keep it on the low-level limited effectiveness that had been demonstrated would have sent a message to al-Qaeda and their allies that the United States and our allies were willing to leave the field to them.

Double oy! And today we have Lt. Gen McChrystal preparing to ask the President for more troops. And you wonder why I call this the Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch?

So as I see it the President has really two options. He can approve McChrystal's request, but then he has to give a nationally televised address to the nation explaining why he believes the current US mission of nation building in Afghanistan is so important and why it requires not only more troops but a tangible financial commitment of the United States to see it through to its fruition. We are getting deeper and deeper into Afghanistan; the President has a responsibility to explain exactly to the American people what that means and what it will entail.

Or, the President can as Jim Jones suggested, say "What the F**K?" and ask his civilian and military advisors what exactly is going on in Afghanistan and whether we are wading into a military and political quagmire that may not be in the national interest, that is of dubious value to the United States and may not actually work.

Either way, he has to do something because the strategic drift and mission creep that has defined the US policy in Afghanistan over the past 6 months is not going away. If anything, it's going to get worse.


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The thrust of the argument, it seems to me, is why have we gone at this ass-backwards?

Pakistan is a failing state (with nukes!) as opposed to Afghanistan which is not a state. It seems to me, the most economical approach - and in these days of the eclipse of America as a global super power we should be concerned with economy of effort - would be to shore up Pakistan with as much aid as fast as they can absorb it. (No boots on the ground, of course!)

Our effort should also be to secure be peace between India and Pakistan. Afghanistan can go to rot. The Taliban? They are not terrorists of global reach.

The biggest stakeholders in Afghanistan are the Euros. Yes, those allies of ours who are NINO's (Nato-In-Name-Only). Their populace is totally indifferent to standing by our side in our Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). But it is they who have insisted in poppy crop eradication. (That's been a non-starter in our winning hearts and minds of the Afghan farmers - we should all be glad we're 86-ing that at long last.)

The Blue Dog argument is that Obama's post-Bush effort in Afghanistan is too big to fail. I understand that. But I've also heard that before, too. I heard that in 1969. I heard that last week. In other contexts.

Too big to fail….

There's also the caboose argument that we have to take Obama's back to protect him from the Dolchstosslegende accusation. That, to me sounds a little like arguing that loyality, even though well-placed, trumps honesty.

Here's an idea. We've been in Afghanistan eight years. I'm saying I won't be alive whenever it is that we are able to leave. So I don't matter. Don't try to convince me. But find some one in his 40's or younger, young enough to be a stakeholder.

Tell him/her what Afghanistan will look like when we are able to stop spending blood and treasure in its deserts and mountains. Tell him/her when that will be. And convince him/her that this OEF will eventually yield a worthwhile ROI. Sell Afghanistan.

No one in this lifetime deserves my loyalty more than President Obama. But show me how I can support him effectively if I surrender my honesty and integrity?

I'm sorry, Michael, but I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of what the term "mission creep" means. You cite a CNN report stating that, after a top-to-bottom review, more troops are being sent in order to "conduct[] intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as [provide] more assets to deal with roadside bombs and explosives" and conclude—a-HA!—that this is proof positive of the mission creep you’ve been warning about. That's increase in forces, my friend, known as "force protection", inherent in any military operation, and is hardly "mission creep."

The term mission creep, a pejorative borne out of the 1992/1993 U.S. mission to Somalia--where U.S. forces went from humanitarian relief in a war-torn country stricken with famine to kinetic capture/kill missions against local militia leaders--does not apply simply because a) U.S. forces have been present in a given nation for a long time or b) the role or scope of the U.S. presence has changed due to the conditions on the ground.

Initially, Operation Enduring Freedom was designed to capture/kill those members of Al-Qaeda responsible for the 9/11 attacks and disrupt that group's ability to conduct more attacks from Afghanistan. An implied task in that mission was destroying the country's base of support (i.e., the Taliban). After the Taliban was expelled from Kabul, the strategic objective was to ensure that Afghanistan would no longer be available as a base for extremist organizations to launch attacks against the U.S. or Western allies. Hence, our efforts to help establish a centralized government in Kabul to fill the vacuum left after 30 years of warfare. This created the NATO-driven ISAF mission, which is primarily designed to build capacity in the Afghan National Security Force and improve the infrastructure of the nation.

Many progressives have complained for years that this mission has been undermanned and underfunded, with all of the resources being diverted to the “war of choice” in Iraq. Now, President Obama and his commanders are correcting this situation, and those same people who lamented the lack of attention in Afghanistan are now saying that it is receiving too much attention and is now becoming a “quagmire.”

Sorry, but I don’t see it. This change of mission from the Bush strategy is all of 3 months long, and if anything, the naysayers have jumped the gun with their criticism, taking a hit on their credibility in the process. Having more forces on the ground gives the commander more options tactically. For example, for the first time, with more BCT-sized elements on the ground we’re able to actually hold ground that we secure, instead of pulling out after offensive after offensive, only to have the Taliban/HQN return. It’s hard for the U.S. & NATO to earn the trust and support of the local population, the crux of the COIN strategy.

This is not “mission creep.” This is simply a proper resourcing of the current, ongoing mission.

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