National Security Network

Transition in Afghanistan

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Report 21 June 2011

Afghanistan Afghanistan Afghanistan Strategy Obama Taliban troop levels

Tomorrow, President Obama will announce his plan for a reduction of American forces in Afghanistan starting next month. Reports indicate he will pledge to remove 30,000 "surge" troops by the end of 2012. That plan would begin a gradual but sustained transition and is broadly supported by commanders on the ground. These numbers exist in a broader context. Beginning the transition means recognizing the successes of the core counterterrorism mission -- with 20 of the top 30 terrorist targets in the region having been killed on Obama's watch. It means putting Afghans in the lead following an increase in resources that helped stabilize the situation after years of neglect. America's commitment in Afghanistan has been costly and lengthy. Troop reductions will allow Afghans to take responsibility for their own country and begin to align American interests in the country with our commitment there.

The next challenge lies in the overall mission, military but above all political and economic. Troops that remain should focus on continuing to root out terrorists. The secondary focus for the security mission should be training Afghan security forces to take the lead in protecting their country. Importantly, making security gains last will require a renewed focus on a political solution, both between parties in Afghanistan and regionally; governance reforms; and fostering sustainable economic growth.

President Obama set to announce a gradual but sustained drawdown from Afghanistan.  The Washington Post reports, "President Obama will announce Wednesday his decision on how many troops to withdraw from Afghanistan next month, concluding a process of consultation with his advisers and commanders that will set the military course for the rest of the war." As Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel writes, "While Obama is choosing amongst a range of options, he reportedly favors withdrawing all 30,000 troops by the end of 2012 -- a decision top U.S. and NATO commander David Petraeus is said to support -- with up to 10,000 departing this year."

Experts suggest this plan won't have a substantial effect on the mission. As the LA Times details, "Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, said he did not expect the withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops to cause security conditions to worsen in southern Afghanistan. He said the U.S. and the Afghan government were recruiting local police units that, along with Afghan army units, could help fill the gap. ‘With the increasing ... move toward a strategy that involved local security forces, I think that the U.S. can make do with a smaller force,' said Jones, who was an advisor to special operations units in Afghanistan until earlier this year. ‘I don't think 10,000 is going to have a meaningful impact on the strategy.'" [Washington Post, 6/20/11. AfPak Channel, 6/21/11. Seth Jones via LA Times, 6/21/11]

Put military focus on robust counterterrorism operations, transitioning the lead to Afghan security forces. The U.S. and NATO have achieved great success in their primary mission: going after terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. As the New York Times reported last weekend, "[O]fficials said the intense campaign of drone strikes and other covert operations in Pakistan - most dramatically the raid that killed Osama bin Laden - had left Al Qaeda paralyzed, with its leaders either dead or pinned down in the frontier area near Afghanistan. Of 30 prominent members of the terrorist organization in the region identified by intelligence agencies as targets, 20 have been killed in the last year and a half."

Beyond counterterrorism operations, the security side of the mission should focus on training Afghan security forces and putting them in the lead role in fighting the Taliban. That mission faces significant obstacles. Wired's Spencer Ackerman summarizes a speech by Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, the commander in charge of training Afghan forces: "The Afghans still don't have a mature logistics chain and support battalions - the sustainment forces that keep militaries functioning. Before 2011, Caldwell said, the Afghan police didn't even have engineers to keep its facilities running. Now, he's got to put them through three months of education to cultivate their ‘basic technical skills.' That's itself a huge challenge. Caldwell has made basic literary and numeric education a cornerstone of his training regimen after discovering that very few Afghan recruits can read on a first-grade level. How to make an engineer corps out of illiterates? If that wasn't enough, about 18 percent of Afghan policemen and nearly a third of Afghan soldiers walk off the job early every year, Caldwell said. And lest we forget, Caldwell's command estimates that it costs $6 billion every year to yield a capable Afghan security force." Enabling a transition to Afghan lead while protecting America's central interest in Afghanistan - defeating transnational terrorism - should be the focus of the strategy. [NY Times, 6/18/11. Spencer Ackerman, 6/6/11]

Need to think beyond troops.

Governance. Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman of the Center for American Progress recently advised that, "[T]he sustainability of those [military] gains over the medium to long term depends on the performance of and public support for the Afghan government. On this front, the indicators are much worse given the Afghan government's narrow political base and officials' frequent abuse of their authorities. The Afghan government is highly centralized in the executive branch, and to date, it has been more effective at tapping U.S. and other international donors' assistance than mobilizing the political and financial support of its own public... As the administration discusses the transition of U.S. forces, it must also provide a clearer plan for how it intends to transition responsibility to the Afghan government. Currently, the period between 2011 and 2014 is a blank slate, and the terms of a U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement that would shape our engagement beyond 2014 remain largely opaque. Failing to plan for this period could delay the handover to Afghan lead beyond 2014 and threaten the numerous investments the United States, the international community, and Afghan partners have made." [Caroline Wadhams and Colin Cookman, 6/13/11]

Talking with the Taliban. Talks are a core part of the strategy, as outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained last weekend, "We have all said all along that a political outcome is the way most wars end." Now is the right time to starting talking, write Michael A. Cohen and Michael Wahid Hanna: "The death of Osama bin Laden has provided the Obama administration with a dramatic inflection point that could allow all sides to begin the process of grappling with what are unpalatable, but essential, steps toward political resolution. For this opportunity not to be wasted, the United States must fully commit to a political strategy and ensure that its military might is employed in service of the essential goal of ending this war." [Robert Gates via UPI, 6/19/11. Michael Cohen and Michael Hanna, 6/14/11]

Economic growth. Bloomberg explains, "An estimated 97 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product is generated by spending on foreign troops and aid efforts, according to a U.S. Senate report released this month." Finding a way to move beyond an economy supported by war and outside funding is essential for stability. [Bloomberg, 6/21/11]

What We're Reading

At least 21 people were killed when bombs exploded at a checkpoint outside a provincial governor's house in central Iraq, the latest attack targeting a government building.

Britain can maintain its military campaign in Libya as long as needed, Prime Minister David Cameron said, responding to doubts among senior British military officers. 

A Tunisian court sentenced the country's ousted president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and his wife to 35 years in prison and a fine of roughly $66 million after a trial in absentia for embezzlement and misuse of public fund.

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou faces a critical confidence vote as the government tries to gain support for its economic reforms in the midst of growing popular discontent over a fresh wave of austerity measures.

The Afghan finance minister has said he is "running out of patience" with the International Monetary Fund after it rejected a plan to deal with the troubled lender Kabul Bank.

Japan logged its second-biggest trade deficit on record in May as exports continued to fall after the March earthquake and tsunami, government data showed.

Chinese officials have defended a decision to invite Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to China, despite criticism from rights groups.

A passenger jet slammed into the ground and caught fire while trying to land on a foggy night in northwestern Russia, killing 44 people and leaving eight survivors badly hurt.

French authorities say they are preparing to try to extradite the former Panamanian military ruler, Manuel Noriega.

Israeli and Turkish officials have been holding secret direct talks to try to heal diplomatic tensions between the two countries, a senior official in Jerusalem said.

Commentary of the Day

Major General Paul Eaton (ret) calls the National Defense Authorization Act an odd blueprint for national security, flawed from constitutional, judicial and national security perspectives.

Marc Lynch details the positive developments that have occurred in Libya, suggesting this is a mission of which the administration should be proud, not one to be hidden away from public or Congressional view.

Der Spiegel argues that the euro is becoming an ever greater threat to Europe's common future, chaining together economies that are simply incompatible.