Friday, November 18, 2011

Victory Beckons

Despite my worries that the image of a too-rapid drawdown of the surge forces in Afghanistan will give the impression that we are retreating, the situation on the ground is good for us.

Despite our surge of forces the last several years that has allowed us to go on the offensive the last couple years, and high profile Afghan complaints about our firepower use and night raids to nail Taliban gunmen, public opinion there is trending good on a key measure:

It said that the number of people who said they sympathized with the aims of Taliban had dropped to 29 percent compared to 40 percent last year and 56 percent in 2009.

That's pretty good considering the reputation of the national government isn't very good and that the war is dragging on.

Our military certainly thinks that trends are good, as they reported:

Overall, the report gives a more upbeat assessment of the military strategy and its future prospects. For the first time in several years, the report does not describe the progress in Afghanistan as "fragile and reversible" — an omission that a senior defense official said Friday was deliberate.

Instead, the report focused on the continuing risk areas, such as the safe havens in Pakistan and weak governing in Kabul.

The defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak publically on the issue, said that U.S. and coalition forces will be turning more attention to the eastern border region. But the official could provide no details on what that would look like, or if it will mean a substantial shift in U.S. troops to the embattled region.

Major worries are lack of progress in the national government and enemy sanctuaries in Pakistan.

But we can win if we stay the course:

The tangible result of that pressure is a drop of 26 percent in enemy-initiated attacks from July to September 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. U.S. commanders had predicted an increase in enemy attacks during this period when the number of U.S. troops surged and they moved into enemy redoubts. But the insurgent response has been much weaker than expected, notwithstanding a few high-profile attacks. The north and west, where some analysts had been worried about an increase in Taliban activity, have also turned more peaceful this year. The one anomaly is Regional Command-East, along the border with Pakistan, where attacks are up between 2010 and 2011.

Before he stepped down as senior NATO commander this summer, General David Petraeus had been planning to pivot the focus of his operations from the south to the east in 2012 so as to do to the Haqqani network what U.S. troops have already done to the Quetta Shura Taliban. But President Obama’s surge drawdown (pulling 10,000 troops out this year, and another 22,000 by the end of September 2012, against the advice of his military commanders) has put that plan into jeopardy. Marine General John Allen, Petraeus’s successor, will be hard-pressed to find enough forces to hold the south while mounting a major operation in the east.

The east is where the major threat is. We had been shaping this region while we made our main effort in the south. While I'd rather have the surge forces draw down more gradually to help with the shift to the east (as I wrote about before), I think that with 68,000 we can win. Why? Because I thought we could win before the latest surge. Looking at the numbers 2 years ago, I still thought we had enough.

Today the reasoning stands. Looking at the regions of Afghanistan, the capital district (3.5 million people) is fairly secure but critical to hold, so let's allocate the assumed minimum of 2% troop strength compared to the local population, for 70,000 security forces to secure the area.

Regional Command East (7-10 million) where our main effort will be over the winter and into next year--with extra troops needed to interdict the border--let's call it as needing 2.5%, or 250,000 security forces at the high population end.

Regional Command South and Southwest (3.2 million) is into the hold phase, but since it is the home ground of the Taliban, let's assume 2% are needed, for 64,000.

Regional Command West (3 million people) and Regional Command North (7 million) are not peaceful, but let's assume a level that I assumed for the Shia south in Iraq back during the intense fighting and call it 1%, or 100,000 troops in these areas. Maybe we could get by with only 0.5%, or 50,000, since we don't face the equivalent of the Iran-backed Sadrists in those areas and despite claims that the Taliban would flow there after being defeated in the south, haven't managed that.

So we need a total of 484,000 security forces at the high end and maybe 434,000. What do we have? Assuming our draw down by mid-2012 or so to pre-2010 surge strength, we add 68,000. Our Coalition allies will probably draw down to 30,000 in the same time, I'll guess (from about 40,000 now). Afghan security forces stand at 305,000 (aiming for 350,000). There are 34,000 private security forces (I recently read that but don't remember if I blogged it). That's 437,000 security forces. This is above my lower end minimum and we may reach my higher end minimum when you count local defense forces that work with us and unofficial militias that protect their home areas against the Taliban without our help.

And if our success in the south holds, we can afford lower force levels there, and maybe elsewhere--including eventually in the east where the fight is about to intensify. I'd hope that we'd keep 25,000 or so US forces there even after 2014 along with maybe 10,000 Coalition forces. But our withdrawal from Iraq too soon does not give my cause to be confident.

Still, while we will have to juggle scarcer US forces more by relying on non-US forces more, the numbers should be sufficient to make progress in the new year and following years.

Don't despair. Yes, the war has been going on over a decade, but we have only been fighting it at more intense levels for the last 2+ years, really. And no, it isn't because we were distracted by Iraq. After 2006, the Taliban gained a sanctuary in Pakistan and after 2007, al Qaeda gave up on Iraq and shifted their attention to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At worst, you can say that there was a gap in 2008 as we shifted forces to Afghanistan.

We will win. If the people who used to call Afghanistan "the good war" don't pull the plug and run from yet another war before we can win.