Thursday, October 08, 2015

In For a Penny, In to Get Pounded?

The good news is that President Obama is apparently preparing to keep several thousand American troops in Afghanistan after next year, despite original plans to get our completely. A lesson from the retreat from Iraq in 2011 has been learned. But has it been learned well enough?

This seems to be good news:

President Obama is seriously weighing a proposal to keep as many as 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2016, according to senior U.S. officials, a move that would end his plans to bring U.S. troops home before he leaves office.

The proposal presented in August by Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would focus the remaining American force primarily on counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other direct threats to the United States. ...

The Dempsey plan envisions the United States maintaining a few bases, perhaps two or three, that could be used as “lily pads” to launch strikes against groups that threaten the United States, senior defense and administration officials said.

The lily-pad bases would potentially house American drones and fighter jets as well as elite counterterrorism troops, and could be at Bagram air base north of Kabul and one or two other airfields, said senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning.

But there is an obvious problem:

“What you don’t want to do is leave a force that’s just big enough to provide a juicy target for the bad guys, but that’s too small to defend itself,” said a senior U.S. official involved in the planning.

It is possible that our allies might match our troop commitment. But how many will be combat troops with robust rules of engagement?

We'd probably double the commitment with contractors, many of whom would be for base security, but they still aren't US troops who will fight when the going gets rough.

I thought fewer than 5,000 was too little for Iraq after 2011 where we could push some of our support needs to troops based in Kuwait or afloat. How do we make a few thousand work in isolated Afghanistan?

Yet even the issue of base defense is not the whole picture. Sure, if Afghanistan goes belly up it would be nice if our bases were in a fortress capable of holding out. But what then?

We'd have to airlift those forces out of landlocked Afghanistan while our friends in the base (many will have fled to seek safety there) see us abandoning them. So we'd have to pull them out--and their familieis, too--or risk an massacre from within as we try to get out.

All while under attack.

Plus allied forces and contractors would need to be pulled out.

If we stay, it should be with a force not only robust enough to defend itself on their bases but strong enough to keep the Afghan forces in the fight and winning.

The last thing we want is to have too few troops to keep the Taliban from defeating our allies but just enough to make a good massacre.

Our experience in Iraq should help us learn to do things right--not just make a different (and bloodier) mistake in Afghanistan.