If we start from the assumption that Afghanistan's territory must be controlled by someone who will deny sanctuary to terrorists (as George Packer, Ross Douthat, and John Nagl have all recently insisted it must), we're basically left with two options: control Afghanistan with U.S. forces, or build Afghan capacity to the level required for the host government and ANSF to execute this task with minimal support. Our purported current approach is to do the former in the near term, while simultaneously accomplishing the second for a transition of responsibility over the medium to long term.
Douthat rather disingenuously suggests that the administration "hasn't been choosing between remaining in Afghanistan and withdrawing from the fight. It's been choosing between two ways of staying": COIN and Biden's "CT-plus." This is a curious way of framing the options, and one wonders if Douthat believes that the limited U.S. presence in Iraq after this year similarly constitutes just another "way of staying" rather than a pretty significant departure. But I digress. Here's why Douthat thinks we're sticking around:
First, the memory of 9/11, which ensures that any American president will be loath to preside over the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. Second, the continued presence of Al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan’s northwest frontier, which makes it difficult for any American president to contemplate giving up the base for counterterrorism operations that Afghanistan affords. Third, the larger region’s volatility: it’s the part of the world where the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists is most likely to become a reality, so no American president can afford to upset the balance of power by pulling out and leaving a security vacuum behind.And so how do we avoid leaving that vacuum? Through the COIN approach, Douthat suggests, "which seeks to lay the foundations for an Afghan state that's stable enough to survive without our support."
But it doesn't just have to survive, does it? It needs to be capable of denying its territory to terrorists. As we should all know by now, governments that are friendly to terror organizations aren't usually the problem -- it's governments that are too weak to do anything about those organizations that are the real trouble.
So if these are our worries -- the memory of 9/11, a base for CT operations, and "the nightmare of nuclear-armed terrorists" -- then any U.S. departure is going to be contingent on creating a government and security force that can secure our interests in these areas to the same degree that U.S. presence can, right?
Here's the thing: is there anyone who believes that the Afghan government will be capable of functioning in even the limited capacity required to deny sanctuary to those committed and confirmed terrorists who already exist within, say, the next decade?
If so, why?
As you'll no doubt have heard by now, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report yesterday on the status of international efforts to train ANSF. The report was not good: it concluded that the capability rating system being used by ISAF to evaluate ANSF "basically has not been a dependable system," seeing as "even top-rated Afghan units could not operate independently and that the ratings of many security forces overstated their actual capabilities." NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan (NTM-A), the ISAF organization charged with the ANSF training mission, has since changed its metrics and overall rating system to try to get more useful data.
In his Senate confirmation hearing yesterday, GEN Petraeus addressed the report and tried to "clarify" in a manner that downplayed the significance of SIGAR's conclusions. The old Capability Milestone (CM)-based system conveyed information about the levels of manning, equipping, and training of Afghan units; that is, the system that was being used for the first NINE YEARS OF THIS WAR was based on how well the Table of Organization and Equipment was filled out, or how many boxes you could check on a training plan. The CM system didn't tell you anything about the actual FIGHTING ABILITY of the unit being rated. (For metrics geeks, you could say this was a Measures of Performance-oriented rating system, rather than Measures of Effectiveness.) And apparently it took a SIGAR report for us to figure out that this wasn't a terribly effective mechanism.
But that's a bit of a digression, isn't it? Our rating system isn't exactly the point here -- the capability of the ANSF is what we should care about. And size, but in this context, size is really only significant as a factor in determining capability to accomplish a certain mission set or secure a defined end-state. So this becomes a sort of a math problem: can 400,000 ANSF (ANA + ANP) do the business, assuming we get to the target size within the expected time period?
Can 400,000 ANSF deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda? Can 400,000 ANSF ensure that America won't be attacked by individuals who train or plan their attacks from Afghan territory? (We already know they can't do anything about the AQ folks on the other side of the Hindu Kush, but again, we're going to leave that aside for now.) Can 400,000 ANSF do the job that 130,000 ISAF troops plus ~245,000 ANSF are currently doing? So, basically, what's the time frame on which we can expect ANSF to effect a one-for-one, straight-up capability match with the ISAF troops who will be departing the country?
Seriously: is there anyone who thinks this can be done in a decade?
And if not, then why is this our strategic concept? Why aren't we working on some other plan to mitigate the nearly certain shortfalls that will exist when U.S. troops pull chocks and head home?
Or perhaps the better question: why do we insist on repeating the tired and utterly unsubstantiated line that Afghanistan will be vital to U.S. national interests until its territory can be wholly secured against the presence of terrorists and militants?