Wednesday, June 22, 2011

This ain't Sudoku: the Afghanistan numbers game

The past few days have been full of discussion on the timeline for troop numbers in Afghanistan: how many are coming back and how fast? The next few days will be more of the same. Conventional wisdom prior to the President's speech tonight is that we'll see 30,000 troops withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2012. This isn't the number that General Petraeus was shooting for apparently, nor Senator Levin, and is more of a "middle ground." This is obviously a political maneuver aimed at domestic and foreign audiences with some thought for the implications in Afghanistan. That statement isn't to chide the President on the decision - he is a politician after all - and is merely an observation.

Here is an opinion for you, though: I don't care what the total troop numbers are, I care about where they are and what they're doing and how they fit into a greater strategy. First of all, 100K troops does not mean 100K saturating the Afghan landscape. It includes other essential military personnel on both big FOBs and patrol bases: logisticians, communications specialists, headquarters staff, lift and attack aviators, chaplains, mailmen, etc. It also includes those people who do things on big FOBs in the modern age: guards for TCN workers, the guy running the gym, the kid on duty in the MWR tent, military police, etc. The remainder are the guys out on patrol bases, conducting operations and training Afghan security forces.

What I'd like to know is how many fall into the last grouping. I'd like to know where they're positioned throughout Afghanistan. I'd like to know what they're doing. Then I'd like to know how they're doing. We should be able to tell if we need another battalion or company in a certain district or province at this point based on this type of information. I get that most of the Afghan campaign is an exercise in economy of force, but I want better discussions than 10K troops here and there in the whole country. I also understand that a lot of that is classified and will not be publicly released, but for all I know, the first 10K getting pulled out are the tower guards at Bagram and Kandahar and are being replaced by private security contractors (I know this isn't the case, I'm using hyperbole to make a case...). I don't need to know that the 69th Infantry Regiment is going to Village X to do Y. Just a simple troops-to-task layout.

I hope this type of analysis is going on in Afghanistan and here in DC. I suspect it is to an extent. Those of you who have been reading my recent writing on Afghanistan of late have probably noticed my pessimistic attitude towards this endeavor. I have this attitude because I don't feel that we have a strategy there. I feel that we had much better information on what was going on in Iraq when we were having similar discussions about that country a few years ago. How does this draw down compliment a political strategy? How does it tie in to negotiations with the Taliban? Or even some kernel of "we stand down when they stand up"? We don't seem to have strategies or plans for any of these and that's what gets my goat about Afghanistan. Maybe there is one that's classified, but if there is there aren't many indications that it's being used.

The draw down is as much a political decision as it is a strategic decision. But I'm seeing a whole lot of politics and not a whole lot of strategy. Or at least of the ends and means variety. So to those involved in this and those that comment on it: please, please, please tell us what the plan is. Please tell us the strategy. Please tell us how this ranks in our global national interests. Tell us why we're sending our men and women there by explaining how they're going to fix things. Tell us what we're spending our money on. And skip the bromides and quotable platitudes. Because this isn't a numbers game. These are people's real lives - both ours and Afghans.

3 comments:

  1. I could not possibly agree more with every word of this post.

    At the same time, if the reports are accurate and 30K will be pulled out by September 2012, it represents a large-scale abandonment of a stabilization strategy. The fight is in the districts, and if you're not there, I don't see how we exert any real influence.

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  2. Here are some numbers for battalion-level units of various kinds in Afghanistan for four time periods: December 2008, President Bush’s last month in office; December 2009, when President Obama had deployed the 2009 wave of reinforcements but not the “West Point surge”; October 2010, when the “West Point surge” had fully deployed; and the present (a few additional infantry battalions have surreptitiously been deployed since then). These are not official numbers, just my counts, so they could be off by a little, especially the numbers for “enablers.”

    December 2008
    Infantry, armor, and cav battalions (incl. those acting as ANSF training battalions): 10 U.S., 18 Allied
    “White” SOF battalions: 2 U.S. (Allied numbers not available)
    Artillery battalions (incl. those acting as provisional infantry or ANSF training battalions): 3 U.S., 1 Allied
    Engineer and EOD battalions: 5 U.S., 2 Allied
    Helicopter battalions (attack, lift, and CSAR): 6 U.S., 3 Allied
    Fixed-wing squadrons (attack): 3 U.S., 1 Allied
    ISR squadrons (manned and unmanned): 1 U.S.

    December 2009
    Infantry, armor, and cav battalions (incl. those acting as ANSF training battalions): 24 U.S., 23 Allied
    “White” SOF battalions: 3 U.S. (Allied numbers not available)
    Artillery battalions (incl. those acting as provisional infantry or ANSF training battalions): 8 U.S., 1 Allied
    Engineer and EOD battalions: 9 U.S., 2 Allied
    Helicopter battalions (attack, lift, and CSAR): 12 U.S., 5 Allied
    Fixed-wing squadrons (attack): 3 U.S., 1 Allied
    ISR squadrons (manned and unmanned): 4 U.S.

    October 2010
    Infantry, armor, and cav battalions (incl. those acting as ANSF training battalions): 38 U.S., 25 Allied
    “White” SOF battalions: 4 U.S. (Allied numbers not available)
    Artillery battalions (incl. those acting as provisional infantry or ANSF training battalions): 11 U.S., 1 Allied
    Engineer and EOD battalions: 13 U.S., 2 Allied
    Helicopter battalions (attack, lift, and CSAR): 17 U.S., 5 Allied
    Fixed-wing squadrons (attack): 4 U.S., 1 Allied
    ISR squadrons (manned and unmanned): 6 U.S.

    June 2011
    Infantry, armor, and cav battalions (incl. those acting as ANSF training battalions): 43 U.S., 26 Allied
    “White” SOF battalions: 4 U.S. (Allied numbers not available)
    Artillery battalions (incl. those acting as provisional infantry or ANSF training battalions): 12 U.S., 1 Allied
    Engineer and EOD battalions: 13 U.S., 2 Allied
    Helicopter battalions (attack, lift, and CSAR): 19 U.S., 5 Allied
    Fixed-wing squadrons (attack): 4 U.S., 1 Allied
    ISR squadrons (manned and unmanned): 6 U.S., 1 Allied

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  3. You could pull out nearly 30K troops and have just about zero negative effect on actual operations if you sent a few hundred motivated and intelligent young officers around KAF or BAF or where ever else with clipboards and asked people in PT gear at noon chow what their job was, then sent them packing. The amount of personnel waste that our military bureaucracy allows to go on in the war zone is maddening. This is even before you start going to the next level and go into tents and other workspaces and send those people 3 deep in a job packing. Or the headquarters folks who love to talk about their 16-18 hour days, over half of which is spent at the gym or watching AFN or playing XBox tourneys on the mission critical plasma screens.

    The numbers game, though, is nothing new. See "Dereliction of Duty." Same game was played in Vietnam by both sides. I wonder if there's any evidence of similar dynamics, for instance, in the French COIN experience. It is what it is, which is why we perform sub-optimally. What politicians and generals need to understand going in to such campaigns is not the tactical, operational, or strategic lessons of the last wars, but rather the political and bureaucratic lessons that hamstrung us then and now and will do so in the future. There's no way around it.

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