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Officials Work Toward Best Afghanistan Strategy

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12, 2008 – The United States has been at war with extremists in Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, and officials worldwide are working to devise the best strategy to meet changing and challenging conditions in the country.

The U.S. approach to Afghanistan breaks into two periods: pre-insurgency and post-insurgency, a military official speaking on background said.

In October 2001, U.S. forces working with local resistance groups turned the Taliban out of power in a campaign featuring new ways of combining military capabilities.

In the year after the fall of Kabul, NATO volunteered to lead the International Security Assistance Force. Few terrorist incidents were occurring at the time, and insurgent activity was light. “That lent itself to a certain strategic approach with regard to governance, development of the country and stability operations,” the military official said.

ISAF took over security for Kabul and its environs, and later added other areas of the country. By October 2006, NATO had security responsibility for the entire country.

“For the last 24 months, we’ve had an insurgency grow,” the official said. Violence increased in 2008. The enemy tried new tactics, moving to more roadside bombs, car bombs and small-unit attacks that increased in size and sophistication. The Taliban were taking root in the nation again.

Adding to this problem is the larger issue of cross-border attacks by Taliban and terrorist groups using U.S. ally Pakistan as a planning and staging area. Developing a new operational construct is key to defeating the Taliban, the official said.

“Counterinsurgency is not strategy; it’s operations,” the official said. “You can do counterinsurgency a number of different ways.”

One example of success is on display in Iraq. Coalition and Iraqi forces ultimately were able to provide security for the population. Before, the United States used a counterinsurgency construct that operated on building the Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible and getting out. “That’s a counterinsurgency strategy,” the official said. “It proved not to work.”

The surge and a new strategy led to the success in Iraq, and that has lessons for Afghanistan. “I think we’re having to walk almost the same learning curve in Afghanistan, where an insurgency arose and NATO has been challenged to handle it,” he said.

The alliance has been challenged because of manpower constraints, and NATO and affiliated countries are working to deal with this. The United States has committed to sending three brigade combat teams -- or their equivalents -- to Afghanistan. The United States also will send combat enablers such as helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles, which may prove even more important than infantrymen, the official said.

The operational construct that will emerge from study in the United States, in Afghanistan and at NATO headquarters in Belgium will take lessons from the U.S. experience in Iraq, and apply those that make sense in Afghanistan.

“These are things like secure the population, bring security to the district, town, village [and] to be able, ultimately, to not only clear, but hold an area with Afghan forces,” the official said.

Any strategy for Afghanistan has to be a regional construct, the official said. It must take into consideration Pakistan, the other nations of Central Asia and India. “The chairman [of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen] has been almost the lone voice that talked about Afghanistan’s success [in the context of] Pakistan,” the official said.

The principal focus outside of Afghanistan is Pakistan, the official said. “You have to stabilize Pakistan before you can stabilize Afghanistan,” he said. “That is key.”

Working with allies also is key. “There are those in this town who would say, ‘Kick NATO to the curb -- let’s “git’r done,”’” he said. “But we go from the construct that NATO is the reality in Afghanistan, and we need them in order to be successful. NATO must be part of the solution, and it is included in the whole strategy review. Does it make it more challenging? Heck yes, especially in a counterinsurgency.”

Coalition warfare is best suited for a strictly offensive environment. Counterinsurgency is more complex -- there are no front lines, and the enemy is all around, the official explained.

“Each country has different capabilities that they bring to a counterinsurgency strategy, and any plan has to be tailored to understand that,” the official said.

Change is coming to Afghanistan. The country never had the number of troops necessary to make a counterinsurgency program work, especially when looking at the growth of the insurgency itself, he said.

“Over the last three years, the number of allied forces in Afghanistan has grown significantly,” he said. “But it has not kept pace with the growth of the insurgency. The situation is getting worse vice getting better.

“The surge strategy that worked in Iraq worked because we were able to clear and hold -- to be able to bring real change to an environment via governance and development,” he continued.

The NATO and U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, has requested more forces. “He’s not requesting them because he wants to have a good, big barbecue on the Fourth of July,” the official said. “He’s requesting them because he needs them. McKiernan is sending the forces in to confront the bad guys.”

Afghanistan needs security before any progress sticks. But force constraints present a challenge. Troops cannot be everywhere at once. The conundrum is whether to clear and hold one area and ignore others, or challenge the enemy in areas that can’t be held, the official said.

The answer isn’t only with more U.S. or NATO troops. More Afghan security forces are needed. The Afghan police need much work, but the Afghan army is doing well, the official said.

“The sense is that the Afghans really do want to succeed,” he said. “They are fearless, and we need to stay with them. We need strategic patience in the area.”

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Related Sites:
NATO International Security Assistance Force
U.S. Forces Afghanistan


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