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December 07, 2009

Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch - The Redux Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

Several months ago when I started writing the AMCW I noted the apparent disparity between the words that the Obama Administration was using to describe the war in Afghanistan and the words coming out of the mouths of the nation's generals who were actually fighting the war. This was particularly relevant on the issue of counter-insurgency, which the President never mentioned in his March 27th speech announcing his new Afghanistan policy, but which came to define the military's approach to the conflict. At the time, I noted that the Administration seemed to be either confused of less than honest about the sort of war we were waging in Afghanistan.

So you can imagine my surprise when after a comprehensive three month review of Afghanistan policy I read this in the Washington Post today:

The White House has shied away from labeling this phase of the war a counterinsurgency campaign because of concern that it connotes nation-building -- "counterinsurgency" was conspicuously absent from an administration fact sheet about the strategy issued after Obama's speech. But McChrystal has left little doubt that counterinsurgency is what he intends to do. He used the word multiple times in talking to his troops Wednesday morning in Kabul.

Here we go again. If in fact, the tactical approach being utilized by the United States and ISAF is a population centric counter-insurgency that's fine (ish), but the Administration needs to be very clear about what a COIN operation in Afghanistan entails. Clearly, it's a strategy that will be difficult to execute with only 30,000 more troops, a host country that seems disinclined to play an important role in the COIN effort and a timetable for withdrawal that begins in 2011. Might this be a problem down the road when you have a military that is taking the slower strategic course of protecting population centers and a political leadership that needs to start seeing results in 18 months? In general, what is a little disturbing - although not surprising - is that the military seems focused on how to win the war (as they see fit) and the Administration seems more focused on how to sell the war.

As I noted several months ago, it does seem as though the Administration is being less than upfront with the American people about the sort of conflict we are preparing to wage in Afghanistan.

And if the Post's reporting is to be believed it's not just that the Administration and military are on a different page from a communications standpoint:

The fundamentals of the Obama administration's approach largely mirror the counterinsurgency effort that was mounted in Iraq in the latter months of the Bush administration. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, senior commanders focused primarily on driving enemy troops from key population centers and then safeguarding the locals in those areas from insurgent attacks.

"Iraq validated our beliefs that we know how to do this stuff," said a senior general involved in the strategy review.

The parallels to Iraq, however, caused unease among some Obama administration officials who had opposed Bush's surge and maintained during the presidential campaign that the sudden drop in violence in 2007 and 2008 was attributable largely to al-Qaeda's campaign of terror, which alienated its Sunni Arab allies in the country. "The reality is that there is a narrative that emerged during the campaign . . . that we bought off the Sunnis and got lucky," said one senior military official. "That is not what happened."

Well ignoring the fact that buying off the Sunnis and accruing strategic benefit from the ethnic cleansing and enclaving of 2006-2007 in Baghdad were pretty key reasons why "the surge worked" doesn't it seem like some people in the Administration and the military might not be on the same page here?

But put that aside for a second. After the President's speech last week I noted ruefully that for all the debate about CT vs. COIN over the past few months the President didn't even bother to mention the words in his address. Now we see once again the pitfall of this approach. Perhaps when General McChrystal testifies before Congress someone could raise this issue.


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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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