assessments

Jul 2, 2009 | 15:55 GMT

9 mins read

Afghanistan: U.S. Boots on the Ground

JOHN MOORE/Getty Images
Summary
The new commander of the U.S. and NATO effort in Afghanistan has begun to implement operational changes that give some definition to an emerging new strategy in the counterinsurgency campaign. But even with the shift in focus, very real challenges remain, among them the terrain, demographics, tribal loyalties and the interrelated problem of Pakistan.
The new strategy for Afghanistan being implemented by U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the International Security Assistance Force's new commander, is now taking shape — one that shifts the emphasis from "kinetic," or conventional, fighting toward "winning hearts and minds." In the meantime, the largest part of the initial surge of troops into Afghanistan is being completed with the arrival of the 2nd U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand province in the country's southwest. On July 2, some 4,000 of these Marines began to conduct operations in the Helmand River Valley in what has become the largest Marine operation since the twin battles of Fallujah in 2004. As the United States shifts its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, it faces some very real challenges — rooted not so much in strategy as in the underlying realities of Afghanistan. To address those realities, the focus on civilian hearts and minds will be combined with a more judicious use of force. Key elements of the strategy that have emerged so far are these:
  • Institute more restrictive rules of engagement and more oversight for fire support and close air support in order to reduce civilian "collateral damage." If a unit is being engaged by fighters taking refuge in civilian dwellings, that unit will be expected to withdraw to safety rather than destroy the insurgent position so long as doing so does not endanger soldiers' lives.
  • Institute procedures that soften the intrusiveness and negative impact of security operations such as search and seizure and detainee treatment.
  • Push a "cultural" shift among U.S. and NATO forces that enables troops to recognize the critical importance of winning hearts and minds.
  • Establish a more distributed presence among the people, similar to the "clear, hold, build" concept in the Iraq surge.
  • Stop the flow of money, weapons, fighters and other forms of support from outside Afghanistan into the country.
McChrystal is extremely well regarded and considered a sharp and focused senior officer well versed in counterinsurgency. He commanded the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command from late 2003 well into 2008, overseeing some of the most difficult and innovative special operations efforts in Iraq. He is hand-picking the team to lead the effort in Afghanistan and has asked Gen. David Rodriguez, formerly U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' right-hand man, to serve as his deputy. McChrystal also has asked Rear Adm. Greg Smith, the officer who coordinated communications in Iraq for Gen. David Petraeus during the surge, to come out of retirement. A command team of 400 officers and soldiers with a long-term commitment to the Afghan campaign will rotate back and forth from the United States and continue to work with local contacts to better learn the country's political and cultural terrain. After a year of discussion and study of the problems in Afghanistan, no one — least of all McChrystal and his team — is under the delusion that the surge strategy that succeeded in Iraq can be cut and pasted onto Afghanistan. The terrain, demographics, tribal, ethnic and sectarian loyalties, and the interrelated issue of Pakistan all make the situation profoundly different. Click image to enlarge Every insurgency presents its own challenges, and the insurgency in Afghanistan is perhaps the most challenging of all. The territory that is today Afghanistan has been crisscrossed by foreign invaders since the time of Alexander the Great. Time and again, the terrain and its people have ultimately rebuffed any sort of colonial rule or foreign domination. At the same time, social and political cohesion across this territory has always been something of a myth. The country is a loose amalgamation of various tribes and ethnicities, and its history should not be underestimated. U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan have suffered in the years since the initial invasion because priority was given to the Iraq campaign, but these underlying challenges were never really addressed to begin with. There are fundamental principals of counterinsurgency that underlie both efforts — for example, the recognition that basic security for the population is of paramount importance. The focus on hearts and minds is not a carry-over from the Iraq surge; it is basic counterinsurgency doctrine. But it is easier said than done. Afghans are looking to ensure that they do not make permanent enemies of the Taliban only to find themselves abandoned by the United States down the road, should the U.S. military withdraw before sufficient local security forces are in place. Enticements commonly used in the counterinsurgency effort in Iraq — such as offers to improve infrastructure and provide local jobs — are not always as well received in Afghanistan. Especially in rural locations, the local need is not for electricity or schools or access to the city. It is about security, food and water. Indeed, some locals are not interested in roads or schools at all. The Soviets used these kinds of enticements — particularly schools — to help undermine the local tribal culture even before the actual Soviet invasion. For many Afghans, efforts to improve infrastructure are seen as attempts to inject foreign influence into the country. Afghans are skeptical of foreigners to begin with, and they have become even more deeply suspicious of such efforts since the U.S. campaign began in October 2001. One of the most critical roadblocks to winning hearts and minds has been civilian deaths from U.S. airstrikes. Though the true scale and scope of this toll is certainly open to interpretation and spin from both sides, some mistakes or errors in judgment have been made. McChrystal's strategy is to ensure that the default setting is to err on the side of protecting civilian lives. But conducting an airstrike — particularly in a counterinsurgency campaign — is more art than science. Mistakes will inevitably be made, and the more margin for error the more likely high-value Taliban targets and concentrations of troops and supplies will slip away. And a lot of civilian good will has already been lost and will be difficult to regain. Indeed, Rear Adm. Smith's appointment can be seen as evidence of McChrystal's appreciation for the ground that must be recovered and the critical role the media will play in the campaign for hearts and minds. But while kinetic combat operations and the hunt for high-value targets will continue, it is clear that McChrystal intends to focus on bringing the local populace around and thereby rob the Taliban of their support base. As part of this, more "distributed operations" — getting troops out among the people — will focus on clearing areas of insurgents and holding these areas in order to undertake and complete rural development projects. This strategy may have been a part of the Iraq surge, but it is rooted in basic counterinsurgency doctrine. Many of McChrystal's initiatives are all about how the U.S. military can win this war, and the influence of his experience in the special operations community is palpable. Marines in Helmand province already spent much of 2008 conducting distributed operations, with independent platoon-size formations operating 20 to 80 miles from one another at small outposts. (The Marine Corps considers this a "platoon commander's war" because of this necessary dispersal of forces.) The dispersal presents challenges of its own. There is little in the way of infrastructure in rural Afghanistan, and the rugged, mountainous terrain can make it easier for an adversary to approach, surround and overrun an isolated position. Reinforcements will be hindered not only by terrain and lack of infrastructure but also by seasonal weather — snow can make terrain impassible for most vehicles and poor flying conditions can hinder reinforcements by air. What reinforcements can be dispatched will take longer to arrive and will be smaller and more lightly armed than the reinforcements a more urban outpost in Iraq might have received. Indeed, many outposts will be beyond fire-support range and will depend on whether and what type of a fighter jet happens to be in the area for close air support. In short, these distributed units are — and will continue to be — inherently vulnerable. But it is clear that the United States cannot fight a counterinsurgency campaign from the safety of large forward operating bases. There is also broad recognition that the sanctuary and supply provided by Pakistan must also be better interdicted. It is not yet clear whether a meaningful number of U.S. or NATO troops can be dedicated to that mission, and although U.S. forces in Afghanistan are expected to double by the end of 2009, there will still be a profound shortage of manpower on the ground — something that will continue to haunt and hinder military efforts there. Indeed, while important shifts are underway in the U.S. and NATO strategy in Afghanistan, the effort is destined to remain undermanned and underequipped. The United States may double its troop presence in Afghanistan by the end of the year and perhaps further expand it in 2010, but it is unlikely to reach the nearly 120,000 troops the Soviets committed at the height of their occupation. Even that was not enough to impose a military reality in the country. Instead, Washington will try to achieve as ideal an outcome as possible with the forces it is willing to dedicate. Any real change, even assuming a substantial long-term commitment, has a chance of taking hold only on a five- to 10-year horizon.

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