The theory of the schedule for American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has been based on the time necessary for the recruiting and training of the Afghan National Army and National Police. This Afghan Security Force was intended to replace the U.S. and its coalition partners dubbed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in maintaining security throughout Afghanistan to counter the return to power of the Taliban. Victory would be declared and the Americans and their friends would depart.
It appears that the Taliban — in its several command components — is expected to carry on its now limited insurgency tactics through to the announced departure date of sometime toward the end of 2014. To satisfy the desires of the Washington political leadership, the American military has shown a willingness to pretend that such a timetable is going to produce the result desired. It’s implied that a token force of training advisors and a cadre of special operations personnel will remain behind to pursue limited missions.
Unfortunately, creating a national army from a base of volunteers from various tribal, political, and even cultural backgrounds is not easily accomplished except by the counterproductive method of separating the various elements by ethnicity and similar variants. Unit cohesiveness is particularly hard to develop and maintain, but there is no easy alternative. The Pentagon hasn’t been able to approach the eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan any differently since the matter first was introduced during the Bush Administration.
President Obama set forth on March 27, 2009 what he referred to as a “new strategy’ to successfully win the war in Afghanistan. This included a 30,000+ surge of forces that would have the “core goal of the U.S…to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan.” That this same figure of an additional thirty thousand troops was part of a Centcom plan to reinforce Afghan operations capability at least a year earlier was completely ignored.
After an extensive assessment, the newly appointed head of ISAF in June’09, General Stanley McChrystal, urged approval of the assessment report that established an Afghan Security Force including 240,000 army troops and 160,000 national police. Unnoticed or simply not commented on was that this total number was close to the 400,000-500,000 that had been suggested publicly by Hamid Karzai also more than a year earlier. Karzai had been pushing for a greatly enlarged Afghan army to replace U.S. and British forces for quite some time.
The “plan” now became the “Obama Plan” even as McChrystal was forced to resign because of injudicious remarks made by some of his staff regarding their view of the limited capacity of the current White House. As 2011 rolled around and the activity for a second presidential term picked up, the Obama Plan came to include the now accepted 2014 departure for all combat elements of the American-dominated ISAF.
The problem is that the Taliban can happily await the foreign pull-out with harassing attacks, both small unit and individual assassinations “green-on-blue.” The Afghan National Army and the National Police meanwhile show only a modest ability of approaching the cohesion and commitment required to counter what undoubtedly will be a major Taliban effort politically and militarily to return to power. Of course the expected friendly relationship between Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the various Taliban leaders now and after 2014 is accepted as a given in intelligence circles.
Having accepted personal credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden — disregarding a concerted multi-organizational covert operation to do so extending through three presidential terms — President Obama and his administration appear to intend to complete their “plan” for Afghanistan by successfully withdrawing in 2014, if they are still in office. Historians, however, will record — as did the former British special envoy (2007-2010) to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles — that the war against the Taliban was always unwinnable in the traditional sense. It comprised a broad Pushtun tribal insurgency encompassing all of southeastern Afghanistan with allies countrywide. Protected by their northern tribal cousins in Pakistan along with sanctuary guaranteed by a special section of Pakistan’s intelligence (S-Wing of ISI), the various elements of the Taliban have had a uniquely secure fighting environment.
The best that can be hoped for in the pursuance of the Obama plan of building an Afghan army to allow U.S. and ISAF’s departure is that stalemate military conditions will allow a political solution. At least that’s what the Pakistani strategists calculate. Of course President Karzai’s continued political existence — to say nothing of his life — is in serious jeopardy. He knows that and will be quick to head to the U.S., Europe, or his old school friends in India at the first possible occasion.
The Taliban already is negotiating among itself regarding the division of future key government posts. How do we know this? Pakistan’s ISI has told us so. And it should know because it intends to ensure that any new Taliban-controlled government in Kabul is in tune with Islamabad’s interests. No one should be surprised. It’s the way of the region. The only question is whether President Obama knows this — or cares?
Perhaps the most appropriate comment on any plan for Afghanistan was made by a purposely unidentified Special Forces trooper on his return to Ft. Bragg after his third Afghan tour: “Maybe next time they’ll figure out what the hell they want us to win.”