Thursday, January 01, 2009

Alesia: The New Surge Strategy?

Happy New Year!

The Afghan Surge will take place this year. I am not convinced we need it or should risk it, but it will happen, beginning in 2009. Adding four more combat brigades will put us to seven, I think. We should know from our Iraq Surge experience that adding troops isn't as important as using them correctly for the current situation.

Not that such a surge can't achieve real objectives, but it is risky and potentially raises our objectives in Afghansitan beyond what national security requires--a stable Afghanistan with a government that rules well but lightly and doesn't abuse its own population or serve as a base for jihadis to attack us.

There seems to be great uncertainty out there as to what we will do in Afghanistan with those new troops. One post explains that a proposal to put another battalion of special forces into Afghanistan is opposed by the special forces because there is no overall strategy for Afghanistan that justifies such a move. Special forces always fear being treated as just really good infantry. They're not.

Based on reports from this post and news stories (see here and here for example), can we synthesize what our strategy will be? I'd guess, based on statements and what makes sense, that our surge strategy will have the following components:

We'll expand our ground forces in Afghanistan to 6 or 7 Army combat brigades/Marine regimental combat teams by early 2010. Plus a couple brigade-equivalents of NATO fighting forces will be actual assets.

These American brigades and our fighting allies will concentrate on securing the ring road in Afghanistan out to the border with Pakistan. This will enhance economic growth and serve as a buffer zone to cut off the Taliban inside Afghanistan (within the ring road) from reinforcements and supplies from Pakistan and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Remember, unlike Iraq which was awash in arms and money inside the country left over from the Saddam era, controlling the border of Afghanistan is very important to choking off supplies going to terrorists and insurgents.

Small Coalition/Afghan outposts between the ring road and the border will interdict Taliban and al Qaeda movement across the border and hunt jihadis. This effort will be far more effective if Pakistan's tribal area offensives do not falter, but we won't count on that.

Inside the ring road buffer zone, we'll help Afghan militias we pay for and regular Afghan security forces tear up the Taliban presence, with Coalition air power keeping the enemy atomized as much as possible to prevent them from massing and overwhelming these dispersed Afghan/Coalition small units very often. We'll use reconstruction teams to make Afghan lives better in this area without needing to rely on the ineffective central government for services.

Backed by a stick of constant military operations that continue to hunt jihadis through the winters over the next couple years and lack of support from outside Afghanistan, Pro-Taliban and anti-government tribes will hopefully tire of the fight. Many are in it for the money and not the ideology. We'll negotiate terms of surrender for the less committed tribes so they'll abandon support for drug gangs and Taliban warlords. We won't call it surrender any more than we called the Sunni "Awakening" movement in Iraq a surrender--although it was.

Our Predator strikes in Pakistan will again be rare. I think they were an effort to knock al Qaeda off balance during the presidential transition period. But we may try to organize and pay tribes within Pakistan to extend our buffer zone into Pakistan itself, providing us with intelligence, limited combat capabilities, and influence. We'd rather have Pakistan do the job, but they may not have the stomach yet for this course of action. And all bets are off if India and Pakistan go to war over the Mumbai massacres.

The end result in Afghanistan, if all goes well, will be a nominal national government that controls the capital region and reigns but does not rule local tribes and which actually helps the locals a bit rather than sucking resources from the locals, who in turn do not make trouble for the central government or allow their areas to be used by jihadis to plan attacks on the West. We press for reasonable economic opportunities, with bribes all around (I mean, foreign aid), to keep a fragile peace.

And we stick around this time, unlike after the Soviets left Afghanistan when we ignored the place, for a generation or two to see if we can move Afghanistan into the 19th century (hey, let's not get ahead of ourselves).

Hopefully our military surge recedes by the end of 2011 and we can get down to a single combat brigade plus air power that function as a fire brigade and a hammer for the central government should a local difficulty exceed Afghan military capabilities.

Oh, and of course the anti-war side will stop seeing Afghanistan as the "good war." The Left will start advocating defeat there, too.

My objectives for Afghanistan have never been high , and I think we could get there without the surge or the risk to our troops in landlocked Afghanistan should Pakistan collapse or turn hostile. But as long as our supply lines through Pakistan hold, a surge can get the job done faster and maybe achieve more.

And as we contemplate our Afghanistan surge and what it could achieve, explain to me how it helps with this problem:

Taliban militants are beheading and burning their way through Pakistan's picturesque Swat Valley, and residents say the insurgents now control most of the mountainous region far from the lawless tribal areas where jihadists thrive.

The deteriorating situation in the former tourist haven comes despite an army offensive that began in 2007 and an attempted peace deal. It is especially worrisome to Pakistani officials because the valley lies outside the areas where al-Qaida and Taliban militants have traditionally operated and where the military is staging a separate offensive.

Remember, at this point our real "Afghanistan problem" lies in Pakistan. Even a successful surge in Afghanistan means a post-surge Afghanistan will face the Pakistan problem once again. Like I've argued, in these circumstances I think we can do well enough in Afghanistan without a surge. Which doesn't mean that a surge can't accomplish our minimal objectives a bit faster or even achieve more. But it also means that we risk more--lives, treasure, and national prestige--by trying to achieve more results with more effort.

Nor does it mean I won't support our new surge and advocate carrying it out well and resolutely. All those people who have claimed Afghanistan is the uniquely "good war" have a responsibility to support what they claim they've always wanted--a focus on Afghanistan--until we win. And with all the levers of national executive and legislative power soon to be in their hands, the buck stops there. Say what you will about me and other war supporters, but we at least never threw our troops under the bus when the going got tough in Iraq. We'll soon find out if the White House was the only objective these anti-Iraq War/so-called pro-Afghanistan War people were willing to struggle to achieve.

And of course, a caveat is in order. This is just conjecture on my part, synthesizing reports and guesses over what makes sense to me.

The Long War will continue, without any conjecture needed. We shall see what happens in this new year under new management. Hope and change can surely achieve much, but only if accompanied by lots of firepower and the courage to use it wisely.

Happy new year. And I mean that, actually.