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Talking Afghanistan: Setting a Course

Talking Afghanistan: Setting a Course
13th November 2009 ICSR Team
In FREErad!cals

I disagree with David Kilcullen on several matters, but I agree 100% with what he said recently at Georgetown, as reported by Bellum. Some highlights:

•    We’ve suffered from only incrementally increasing the number of troops over the years. The Taliban has proven itself capable of absorbing the impact from an additional 10-30 thousand troops. We need to either “overmatch” them with a substantially larger deployment  or not send any at all (or possibly draw down). 
•    Whenever we send more troops, violence will spike almost by definition.

•    There is “not much point” to negotiating with the Taliban right now. This is because the Taliban believe they are winning and so have no reason to bargain. Our goal should be to fight first and hard, to convince them that they should talk.

•    Successful counterinsurgencies take 15-20 years. Unsuccessful ones take 9-11 years.

It is refreshing to have a president that is deliberative and doesn’t just follow his ‘gut’, but this is getting a little ridiculous. It is decision time.

Mr. Gates said a central focus in Mr. Obama’s deliberations was “how do we signal resolve, and at the same time signal to the Afghans, as well as the American people, that this is not an open-ended commitment?”

The latest clues about the president’s thinking, as provided by Mr. Gates, came a day after it was disclosed that the United States ambassador to Afghanistan, who once served as the top American military commander there, has expressed in writing his reservations about deploying additional troops to the country.

The position of the ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, puts him in stark opposition to the current American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who has asked for 40,000 more troops.

General Eikenberry sent his reservations to Washington in a cable last week, three senior American officials said on Wednesday. In that same period, President Obama and his national security advisers have begun examining an option that would send relatively few troops to Afghanistan, about 10,000 to 15,000, with most designated as trainers for the Afghan security forces.

This low-end option was one of four alternatives under consideration by Mr. Obama and his war council at a meeting in the White House Situation Room on Wednesday afternoon. The other three options call for troop levels of around 20,000, 30,000 and 40,000, the three officials said.

A central focus of Mr. Obama’s questions, officials said, was how long it would take to see results and be able to withdraw.

“He wants to know where the off-ramps are,” one official said.

The president pushed for revisions in the options to clarify how — and when — American troops would turn over responsibility to the Afghan government. He raised questions, officials said, about the exit strategy for American troops and sought to make clear that the commitment by the Untied [sic] States would not be open-ended.

I am all for an exit strategy, but President Obama should understand that there is a whole spectrum between a timetabled exit strategy and an open ended commitment. The nature of fighting insurgencies is more art than science. Conditions on the ground are constantly changing and strategy needs to be constantly reassessed in concert with policymakers.  The outcome of these deliberations should be setting the best course – not a decision to pick up and leave if this isn’t turned around within x number of years (x is likely to be 2 years or less, if we are to believe the leaks coming out of the White House and DoD).

As Kilcullen reminds us: that is not how these things we call insurgencies work.

I will also add these questions for you all to chew on:

Does the United States have a moral obligation to defeat the Taliban? Do we owe anything to the Afghan people, especially in the south and east of the country, who would have to live under continued Taliban governance if the so-called Biden strategy (minimal counterterrorism/special ops effort) is followed?

Speak up in the comments.