One of the advantages of serving a couple of tours in Iraq as an officer is the number of contacts I've made who have gone on to be senior planners in Afghanistan. What I am hearing from them about the state of things in Afghanistan, and reading the tea leaves, it seems that President Obama may be on the verge of announcing a major change in mission in Afghanistan -- one which largely pulls back our troops from previous plans for the summer, and puts us on an expedited path towards ending the war.
Currently, Afghanistan is obviously a big subject at the NATO conference in Chicago, with France's new government already having promised to remove troops. Meanwhile, General John Allen has announced his departure as commander of forces in Afghanistan, while the President just returned from Afghanistan. And, it seems not coincidental that The New York Times Sunday edition ran a piece on President Obama's last shift on the war.
Combined, everything is telling me that a major announcement is coming, very soon. It'd be a welcome change, as VoteVets.org has long called for a shift towards an Advise, Train and Assist (ATA) role, which is a bridge towards a more limited counter-terror mission in the region, with the war in Afghanistan itself effectively over.
It's important to look at how we got here, and what has changed.
In December 2009, General McChrystal laid out a strategy that identified 80 Key Terrain Districts and 41 District Areas of Interest, in Afghanistan, for us to take. These districts were located along Afghanistan's Ring road and the river valleys (like the Helmand, Kabul, and Kunar River valleys) and population centers (like Kandarhar, Jalalabad, and Kabul). The idea was to pull out of the ancillary valleys and areas and focus our effort along with the Afghan Army in the Key Terrain Districts and population centers. This focused our efforts on a little less than 70 percent of the population. On paper, it was a pretty sound strategy -- focus on strategically important land, and where people were, not on isolated mountainous regions. In short, prioritize and don't try to take every square inch of land.
The result has been a mixed bag. The Afghan Army has been able to hold some areas, while some areas they only could hold with our assistance. The Afghan Army simply isn't large enough or powerful enough to hold everything, at a time when we plan to shrink their size further. So, earlier in the year, we planned a summer offensive, to push out into many of the areas McChrystal originally abandoned, hoping that we could project a security into areas that weren't part of the original plan laid out by Gen. McChrystal, prior to our pull out in 2014. It would be putting more American lives on the line, back to the ancillary areas of Afghanistan that would be very difficult for them logistically and militarily to defend once we withdraw.
And even still, the entire strategy and summer offensive only would be ultimately successful if the Afghan Army -- with the support of the people -- could defeat insurgents themselves, in the same way the Sunni Awakening and Iraqi Army did in Iraq. Being that Afghanistan is a fractious and decentralized country, that was a tall order.
That's why VoteVets.org has always called on President Obama to adopt a counter-terror mission in the region. Counter-terror operations target the enemy where they are, and take them out. It's the strategy that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaeda targets around the world. It costs less in money and lives. It doesn't deplete our troops and our military. And it doesn't put military men and women in the position of having to win over an entire country, under the real risk that a few bad troops could topple the entire house of cards.
So, what's changed? Operationally, there's been a debate within military circles whether the planned summer offensive would be effective given the three points I raised before -- that the Afghan Army is shrinking, U.S. Forces are coming down from surge numbers, and perhaps most importantly, it's important to note that each NATO country controls or contributes to an area in Afghanistan.
France, for example, contributes heavily in Regional Command East, or RC-East (which is part of that 70 percent of the population laid out above). RC-East is made up of about 14 provinces and is larger than Pennsylvania. When France leaves, there's a huge gap to fill. If other NATO partners follow suit, the gaps become bigger and bigger, making the current strategy and timeline dead in the water. This wasn't lost on the President, as he considered General Allen's resignation and replacement.
While it might seem like the factors above forced the President's hand, let me make clear that isn't the case -- if the President announces what I think he will, this is leadership. There have been plenty of men -- from Lyndon Johnson to George W. Bush -- who were too stubborn to face facts, and sent more and more troops into a situation that called for fewer. We often confuse that bravado with leadership. It's not. There's no doubt in my mind that some commanders wanted more troops and more time. It takes guts and leadership to look at the facts, weigh their opinions, and say "Enough is enough. It's time to do what's right by our troops."
This would be President Obama not just saving American lives, but putting Afghans in a much stronger position to stabilize their country. As I stated previously, the Afghan Army held some population centers. It was only the further out spots that they couldn't hold. By ending the idea of a summer offensive to take back those areas, we effectively narrow the focus of what the Afghan Army has to hold on to, so they don't spread themselves too thin. As long as we adequately fund the Afghan Army, and continue to strike out high-value targets ourselves as part of a counter-terror mission, it puts the Afghan government in a much stronger position to either defeat insurgents and the Taliban, or force them to the table to negotiate a settlement.
For as much as VoteVets.org has supported the President, this was the one issue where we didn't see eye to eye, and have been critical of him.
But, if I'm reading things right, and the President is making this drastic change in our mission, bringing about the end of the war in Afghanistan, we'll be the first to say "Thank You" to him, for siding with our troops, and giving them a mission that is achievable, can be successful, and increases American and Afghan security.
[NOTE: I will be updating this post if the President makes an announcement, analyzing what he says, and presenting any unanswered questions that come to mind. We'll also be doing the same on VoteVets.org's Twitter: @votevets]
UPDATE 1 - The US and NATO allies have released this declaration from the summit, which combined with the President's remarks today seem to indicate no substantial change in policy. President Obama is supposed to speak later, though, so we'll see if more is announced.
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