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August 24, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Helmand Sideshow
Posted by Michael Cohen

If you want to get as frustrated as I am about the current US policy in Afghanistan read this article in the New York Times - it's all about how the Marine offensive in Helmand province IS in fact a sideshow:

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch

Governor Massoud has no body of advisers to help run the area, no doctors to provide health care, no teachers, no professionals to do much of anything. About all he says he does have are police officers who steal and a small group of Afghan soldiers who say they are here for “vacation.”

It all raises serious questions about what the American mission is in southern Afghanistan — to secure the area, or to administer it — and about how long Afghans will tolerate foreign troops if they do not begin to see real benefits from their own government soon. American commanders say there is a narrow window to win over local people from the guerrillas.

What this article makes clear is that the US mission in Helmand lacks the resources to be carried out effectively - in short, it highlights the monstrous inconsistency between our goals in Afghanistan and our capabilities.

For example, look at what the President said last week in Phoenix about the US mission and American troops:

They're adapting new tactics, knowing that it's not enough to kill extremists and terrorists; we also need to protect the Afghan people and improve their daily lives. And today, our troops are helping to secure polling places for this week's election so that Afghans can choose the future that they want.

But this isn't what's happening. I don't doubt that it's our intention, but the facts on the ground suggest otherwise. Let's catalog all the challenges to our current mission:

1) We don't have enough US troops:

The Marine battalion, which deployed with less than 40 percent of its troops, can regularly patrol only a small portion of its 6,000-square-mile area. . . That leaves no regular troop presence across the vast southernmost reaches of Helmand. On the Pakistani border the town of Baramcha — a major smuggling hub and Taliban stronghold — remains untouched by regular military units

2) The Afghan Army and police is of little help:

He (Governor Massoud) said he was promised 120 police officers, but only 50 showed up. He said many were untrustworthy and poorly trained men who stole from the people, a description many of the Americans agree with. No more than 10 percent appear to have attended a police academy, they say. “Many are just men from the streets,” the governor said.

The Afghan National Army contingent appears sharper — even if only one-sixth the size that Governor Massoud said he was promised — but the soldiers have resisted some missions because they say they were sent not to fight, but to recuperate.

3) There is no support from the Afghan government:

“Without the Afghan government, we will not be successful,” said Capt. Korvin Kraics, the battalion’s lawyer, who is in Khan Neshin. “You need local-level bureaucracy to defeat the insurgency. Without the stability that brings, the Taliban can continue to maintain control.”

Local administration is a problem throughout Afghanistan, and many rural areas suffer from corrupt local officials — if they have officials at all.

4) The local population is more supportive of the Taliban than the government in Kabul:

 . . . two of every three local residents supported the Taliban, mostly because they make a living growing poppy for the drug trade, which the Taliban control. Others support them for religious reasons or because they object to foreign forces.

Forgive me for beating a dead horse, if we don't have the troops, if we don't have the support of the Afghan military, police and civilian government, if we are not even able to impose our military will and if the local population is not interested in what we are selling why are we continuing to pursue a counter-insurgency mission that depends on all of these things?

Why as, Andrew Exum, suggests should we give this mission 18-24 more months when there is little indication that the problems identified in the Helmand offensive are going to be fixed any time soon? If we haven't been able to get the very basics of counter-insurgency right over the past 8 years; if we haven't been able to get the Afghan government on board with providing effective services to its citizens why will a slight increase in the number of troops combined with a switch in tactics, devoid of ample resources and host country support, going to magically succeed? (And if someone says well it worked in Iraq with the surge, I'm going to pop a blood vessel).

Certainly, it's possible that things could turn around in 18-24 months but there has been precious little indication that this is going to happen. Yet instead of adopting a more restrained mission based on a somewhat narrow view of US interests we are going long- larding on more responsibilities to US troops, like hunting drug dealers and waging a PR war against the Taliban, when we've shown little indication that we can even get the big things right or as Josh Foust suggests learn from our successes. Once again, we are trying to fit a square counter-insurgency peg into a round hole.

And the gulf is more than operational, it's also rhetorical. If as the President has suggested the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity and "fundamental to the defense of our people" then why aren't we sending 100,000 troops or 250,000 troops to Afghanistan? Why aren't we committing to be in Afghanistan for more than 12-18 months, but for five years. How can the President, on the one hand, say this war is "fundamental" to America's defense and yet at the same time not provide the resources to fight it effectively? Because, its fairly clear from reading this article in the New York Times that our troops don't have the resources to do what the President or their military commanders are asking them to do.

Every war it seems produces inconsistencies between intentions and capabilities; but it seems the gulf between why we fight and what we are actually able to accomplish seems to grow larger and larger with each war. In Iraq, presidents and defense secretaries would brag about how many Iraqi soldiers we had trained while ignoring the fact that they weren't able to do little things like operate by themselves. Now we're told that the US mission in Afghanistan will only succeed when the Afghan security forces are up to speed and we have the resources to win.

But neither situation seems to exist  . . . and so we continue down a path that provides barely a glimmer of hope that the current ambitious mission will succeed.


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The second and third points here are the big ones. I've been critical of those throwing around debating points on things like the inconsistencies between Obama administration policy and counterinsurgency theory, but something the Obama administration hasn't done is give any indication as to how it expects the Afghan authorities to contribute to the stabilization of their own country.

The situation it confronts is not its fault. The time to start standing up an Afghan government capable of delivering services to its own people was December 2001, not the summer of 2009. However, an iron law of history holds that some opportunities once missed are missed for good. I'm not clear that Obama's team, suffused as it is with thinking inherited from the Presidential campaign about its "new approach," has fully taken this on board.

Michael asks the important question - "If as the President has suggested the war in Afghanistan is a war of necessity and "fundamental to the defense of our people" then why aren't we sending 100,000 troops or 250,000 troops to Afghanistan?"

But in our current fiscal straits, and with limited military recruitment (we're not seeing any "surge" to the recruitment offices,are we?), how could Obama even entertain the possibility of sending troops on that scale to Afghanistan? Wouldn't that entail an expense that the US simply cannot sustain? Again, Michael nails it with the idea that the US has simply reached the limits of what it can do - and it's not going to be enough, not by a long shot. But the longer Obama hangs in with his "war of necessity" nonsense, and the more marines and Army that get killed, the more that McCain and Graham are going to hammer him for not trying hard enough to "win", so that US forces can come home (to use McCain's execrable phrase ) "with honor."

Bush dealt Obama a truly lousy hand. That doesn't mean that Obama has to stay at the table and keep upping the ante.

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