Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Border Still Matters

One thing I worry about in carrying out our COIN strategy in Afghanistan is that it appears to be based on abandoning attempts to control the border with Pakistan:

U.S. commanders had been planning since late last year to abandon the small combat outpost in mountainous eastern Afghanistan where eight U.S. soldiers died Saturday in a fierce insurgent assault.

The pullout, part of a strategy of withdrawing from sparsely populated areas where the United States lacks the troops to expel Taliban forces and to support the local Afghan government, has been repeatedly delayed by a shortage of cargo helicopters, Afghan politics and military bureaucracy, U.S. military officials said.

The attack began in the early morning hours. Taliban-linked militiamen struck from the high ground using rifles, grenades and rockets against the outpost, a cluster of stone buildings set in a small Hindu Kush valley that has been manned by 140 U.S. and Afghan forces. By the end of a day-long siege, eight Americans and two Afghan security officers were dead, marking the highest toll for U.S. forces in over a year.

We'll abandon isolated outposts vulnerable to attack as this latest attack demonstrated (and remember last year's Wanat battle) to pull back into Afghan population centers.

I worry that we'll believe we can afford to let the enemy come across the border with no practical ill effects. We got away with this in Iraq but that was based on factors unique to Iraq early in the war that do not apply to Afghanistan, namely that the enemy in Iraq had ample money and weapons inside Iraq (courtesy of the Baathists) and only needed to import the suicide bombers from outside Iraq. It was just too difficult to seal a border against infiltration by individuals when those troops could be put into large urban areas to protect the people. Eventually it made sense to expend the effort to control Iraq's borders rather than focus resources in the interior, but not before 2007.

In Afghanistan, the enemy brings in weapons and men for large attacks from Pakistan--whether recruited there or just trained there. If we abandon the border, won't we just invite those large groups of Taliban to penetrate further into Afghanistan to attack our outposts in Afghan cities and towns? Afghanistan is much more rural so our troops will have to spread out quite a bit to protect all those small villages unlike Iraq with large urban areas to focus on.

Wouldn't it be better to put a network of interlocked US/Coalition/Afghan outposts along the crucial border areas that make sure no outpost is beyond help from nearby forces? That way we keep the threat in the interior to smaller levels where Afghan forces with Western advisors and a more limited number of US and NATO units can provide security to population centers (See here).

We recognize that our battle spans both sides of the Afghan-Palistan border (AfPak), but let's not pretend that the border isn't important. If we abandon the border, the enemy will follow us to wherever we stand. And the enemy may be able to make those border areas inside Afghanistan their sanctuary rather than Pakistan, just as Pakistan seems poised to wrest control of border areas from their own jihadis.

But perhaps my worries are all expected by our military. Perhaps nobody sees the chance that we could reasonably seal the border, so any troops away from the people are ultimately a waste of resources. I hope they are right, because I think the border still matters.

I hope that the terrain near the population centers will make it easier to kill off any large groups that attack us there. Because I have no doubt that the enemy will come to the cities.