Friday, March 30, 2012

If We Won't Win, We Will Lose

We need to win in Afghanistan and we can.

I'd be more secure with this appraisal of the Afghan war if Panetta wasn't simply one voice in the administration debate:

Panetta, attending security talks in Ottawa with Canadian and Mexican defense chiefs, says the United States would be in "deep trouble" if it fought wars by surveys.

He says the Pentagon has to operate based on what it believes is the best strategy to achieve the mission. He says the mission in Afghanistan is to safeguard U.S. security by ensuring the Taliban and al-Qaida never again find a safe haven in Afghanistan.

Rallying the country is President Obama's job. He's done less than Bush did for the Iraq War when its popularity declined. But even if President Bush's speeches didn't make the war popular, the troops who fought in Iraq could draw comfort from those speeches that no matter what, their commander-in-chief would do whatever was in his power to give them the opportunity to win. And they did even though opinion polls showed a preference for getting US troops out of Iraq, even if polls at least showed no majority for losing the war. Today, our troops can be excused for wondering if their sacrifice is for nothing.

Secretary Panetta has the mission right, we need to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for jihadis who have used the place before to attack us at home.

General Allen has the situation right, too:

I was very clear in my testimony that after we recover the surge this September, I'll conduct an analysis of the kinds of combat power we will need in 2013. I said I believe the power -- that power to be significant, but I do not say that it will need to rest at any certain level throughout this year or 2013. The truth is there is no way I can know that right now, certainly not until after we've emerged from the fighting season and not until after I've had the chance to assess the state of the insurgency in the aftermath of the fighting season, the operational environment that we anticipate in 2013.

And the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces going forward is not just a matter of what to do with the remaining 68,000 U.S. troops. I must also carefully consider the combination of forces in theater. There will still be some 40,000 ISAF forces in the field and an increasingly capable and increasingly numerous Afghan security forces. Force levels then will represent a composite number. That's a key point. It's American forces as a component of the international and indigenous force, not a separate and distinct entity.

And as I said, it is not just about the numbers either. It's about the operational environment in which we will find ourselves in 2013.

We've done much to degrade the Taliban's capabilities this winter, to deny them resources and sanctuary. I believe we've made it harder for them to succeed in a spring offensive of their own, but we need to get through this fighting season for me to fully understand that amount of combat power that we'll need in 2013.

The basic point is that our side has to be stronger than their side for our side to win and achieve the objective of keeping Afghanistan from becoming a jihadi sanctuary.

That point includes the number of American and Coalition troops, the number and quality of Afghan security forces backed by a reasonably competent governing structure, and the number and quality of enemy forces.

In the long run, Afghan forces have to be strong enough to fight with only our noncombat support. Ideally they could fight without our help, but keep in mind that even our NATO allies--after half a century of preparing to fight--couldn't take on Libya last year without our help. Afghan forces are making progress in getting better.

The strength of the enemy is also important in the equation. The past couple years have featured American-led Coalition forces pounding down and atomizing the enemy. If we can knock the enemy down far enough, Afghan government forces become relatively stronger than the enemy even if government forces don't get any better.

Ideally, our troop strength and mission makes the difference in keeping our friends stronger than our enemies, and over time because we build up our allies and knock down the enemy, we can change our mission from one of fighting the enemy to mostly supporting our allies who fight the enemy. And that means we can reduce our combat forces to lower levels that function only as a strategic reserve and as a rescue force for our support forces in the field.

But can we do that?

Increasingly, even conservative voices are arguing that we can't:

Afghan soldiers and policemen have murdered a coalition soldier or aid worker once a week on average since early 2010, according to an Army study. In all, 77 coalition troops have been killed by members of the Afghan National Security Forces, the Wall Street Journal reported in February. That tally doesn't include seven U.S. troops killed in the wake of the Quran burnings.

Our soldiers think their Afghan "allies" are unstable, incompetent, drug abusers and thieves, according to that Army study, "A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility." They call them cowardly and lazy and say they lack discipline, are dangerous in firefights and have poor hygiene.

The Afghans don't like us, either. "Many ANSF members demonstrated a general loathing of U.S. soldiers" the study said.

"Security responsibility for some areas has transitioned to Afghan forces with notable success," Gen. Allen said. But not, he admitted, in the areas where the Taliban is most active.

The training of Afghan soldiers and police has lagged because of a shortage of trainers and widespread illiteracy (only one recruit in 10 can read and write), high attrition and corruption, the man in charge of training them, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, said last June.

That is from Jack Kelly. Kelly was kind enough to quote my blog many years ago in regard to the Iraq War. The angle of that Kelly article was that over time, we could transfer responsibilities to the Iraqis. In the end (although it took longer than I thought and had to endure a Syrian-Iranian offensive in 2006 that nearly derailed our plans), the Sunni Arabs did in fact turn on the al Qaeda invaders.

And we can win in Afghanistan. What of the problems Kelly cites?

They are true. Afghans do shoot at our troops on occasion. But that is mostly an issue of personal issues rather than enemy infiltration. Afghanistan is a violent place. I dare say we don't see the Taliban shooting each other because of the same issues. That's just the way it is and we need to adapt to that environment.

Are the Afghans as bad as the study says? No doubt. So what? Or do you want to tell me where the Taliban recruit their disciplined, brave, energetic, literate, and hygienic forces? If they've got them, maybe we can recruit there. Oh, and since the Taliban are allied with drug gangs, drug use is surely an issue with our enemies. Although I'll concede that quality of recruits is more of a problem in Afghanistan, that also meant that in Iraq our enemies had better recruiting material, too.

And there was a time when the arguments here were over the status of Iraqi battalions and how many could fight on their own. If you want our allied forces to be as good as ours, you set yourself up for failure. And in the end, we knocked down and atomized the enemy in Iraq so that Iraqi forces could handle the job. Not as well as ours can in a technical sense, but well enough to win.

I'll offer a quote from Rudyard Kipling on the issue of our problems versus the problems of our enemies that I first noted in November 2004:

Man cannot tell but Allah knows
How much the other side is hurt.

We see our own problems and fret over them like teenagers who think they are the first person ever to experience heart ache and make the mistake of thinking our enemies' unseen problems don't exist because we can't see them.

And if the issue is whether an ally has to like us, I give you France as a case in point. It would be nice to be loved by our allies, but all we need them to do is fight with us against a common enemy. That they do, day after day, despite some incidents that call that into question. But those incidents are just excuses to retreat and lose rather than a reason that demonstrates we can only lose.

The problems we face in Afghanistan are all problems that people said couldn't be solved in Iraq. But in the end, our side was good enough to win the war in Iraq. We can do the same in Afghanistan. Identify problems, but do that to fix them and complete the mission. Don't panic. Work the problems, people.

And don't forget our enemies have worse problems.