Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Back to the future: time to renounce panaceas in Afghanistan

My friend Andrew Exum and two of his colleagues at the Center for a New American Security, retired LTG Dave Barno and Matthew Irvine, published a new paper this week calling for a shift in the primary emphasis of the Afghanistan war effort.
It is time for a change of mission in Afghanistan. U.S. and coalition forces must shift away from directly conducting counterinsurgency operations and toward a new mission of "security force assistance": advising and enabling Afghan forces to take the lead in the counterinsurgency fight.
This change, the authors suggest, is necessary to solidify security gains made by coalition forces in recent years and ensure the continued protection of Western interests after NATO forces leave the country. While the report marks an analytical step forward, environmental and institutional constraints are likely to blunt the effectiveness of its policy prescriptions if not block their enactment altogether. It's difficult to escape the conclusion that what passes for creativity in our contemporary efforts to "save the war" has in fact come as much too little, and far too late.

A simple rendering of the report's main argument goes as follows: of the several courses of action available to U.S. forces between now and their ultimate withdrawal date in 2014, the one most likely to produce lasting positive effects entails an immediate, aggressive, and committed effort to increase the capability of Afghan forces. The other alternatives are presented as unpalatable caricatures: 1) continued emphasis on coalition-led counterinsurgency operations through 2014, then sudden and complete cessation of combat activities by NATO forces and transition to predictably incompetent ANSF; 2) unilateral abandonment of the agreed-to drawdown timeline and indefinite continuation of the presently inconclusive western-led status quo; and 3) a rapid and immediate withdrawal of all coalition forces, leaving 2015 Afghanistan both bereft of capable security forces and denied the potential security gains from 36 more months of sustained NATO counterinsurgency operations. The authors assert that their preferred course "will protect long-term U.S. security interests without a never-ending commitment of immense U.S. resources":
[W]e believe that the most prudent option for U.S. policymakers is to adhere to the Lisbon framework for transition in Afghanistan and accelerate the change in mission. By doing so, the United States and its allies will have more time and resources to support the ANSF ahead of the coming transition in 2014, increasing their capabilities and providing vital support as they take ownership of the fight.
Considering they've characterized the other options as expensive, slow failure; very expensive, very slow failure; and inexpensive, rapid failure, I don't suppose we're left with much choice.

A great deal of hay has been made over the past 48 hours of the fact that Exum was a vociferous advocate for escalation back in 2009, when the president grudgingly accepted GEN McChrystal's proposal for a so-called "fully-resourced counterinsurgency campaign." His many critics imply that Andrew should be embarrassed, should show some shame, should prostrate himself before the we-knew-better masses and ritually cleanse his analytical sins. As they would have it, he is advocating in 2011 for a transition that would've been similarly effective two years ago, and which would've saved lives (and billions) to boot.

Bollocks. The war is not the same. Afghanistan is not the same. America is not the same. I was a critic of escalation in 2009; my views are unchanged with hindsight. It simply does not follow, however, that the historical fact of escalation is irrelevant to the operational and political context of today.

That said: this should've happened two years ago.

Announcing his decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, the president said that those forces would "increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans." The Army had started deploying specially augmented brigades to Afghanistan to focus on the train-advise-assist mission. When a brigade from the 82d Airborne was tapped as the first of these, CNAS honcho John Nagl told the Washington Post that compared to previous SFA efforts, "the change couldn't be more dramatic." So one might fairly wonder why Barno, Exum, Irvine, and even Nagl are now essentially telling us that what Afghanistan needs is a fully resourced security force assistance campaign.

They know the answer, of course: COIN advocates insisted the 2009 escalation would be accompanied by a renewed commitment to generating and training capable Afghan security forces, but it didn't happen; the "surge" in combat and stability operations instead starved those efforts of the personnel, resources, and command emphasis they needed to succeed in parallel. The authors have diagnosed the problem properly, though they don't clearly state this conclusion. Instead we get this:
Evidence suggests that some ANSF units are failing today because they commonly operate in the field without embedded, continuous coalition support. Despite the importance of the security force assistance mission, no senior U.S. headquarters, organization or senior commander is currently dedicated to advising Afghan forces. (One can only observe the way in which the initial training of Afghan forces improved after the appointment of a U.S. three-star general officer in 2009 to appreciate the effect organizational changes can have on priorities -- and results.)
Another excerpt is more to the point: "Because U.S. units can execute counterinsurgency operations better and faster than their Afghan counterparts," the authors write, "they are continuing to do so despite the looming transition." Don't let the obfuscatory syntax fool you: individual units are not making this decision for themselves. ISAF has made a determination to focus on combat operations, to try make as much progress as quickly as possible, and then to transition to ANSF "lead" when the Lisbon deadline hits.

The authors can point to an improvement in initial training thanks to reorganization and re-prioritization, but that, too, came at a cost: by focusing on the rapid expansion of the ANSF to meet benchmarks on the "transition" timeline, the coalition tacitly accepted that the Afghan combat formations they stood up would be of inferior quality. The training and advisory effort became a sideshow, a supporting line of operation to the main effort of Western-led counterinsurgency: ISAF leadership knew that "showing progress in the training mission" would be essential to sustaining political support for the campaign, and that 350,000 mediocre troops brief better than 100,000 capable ones. Combine that with the reality that even exceptionally capable host-nation forces would still require the combat support provided by American enablers -- aviation, precision fires, communications, medical support, and so on -- and it's easy to see why quality and competence were sacrificed to rapid expansion. But let there be no doubt: that's what happened.

The paper's authors' bemoan the fact that the American military lacks "the institutional roots to support specialized combat advisor capabilities," as if this is the reason ISAF chose to emphasize initial training over embedded mentoring and assistance. Even if directed at general purpose forces (and ignoring SOF), it's a misleading and inaccurate suggestion: the Army and especially the Marine Corps may be resistant to specialization, but recent U.S. experience in Iraq forced the institutions to adapt. It is patently false that "neither service has devoted a portion of its U.S.-based force structure to training, organizing, equipping, or championing the delivery of dedicated advise and assist capabilities to Afghanistan." The Army dedicated U.S.-based force structure to training combat advisors in 2007; that function has been institutionalized and continues to this day. The 162nd Infantry Training Brigade (and before that, 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Division) has prepared individuals for deployment as part of Military Transition Teams and with dedicated advisory brigades (called Advise and Assist Brigades in Iraq and Modular Brigades Augmented for Security Force Assistance -- a tellingly short-lived designation -- in Afghanistan). Upon the transfer of SFA training mission (pdf) from Ft. Riley to Ft. Polk in 2009, the commander of its new home even remarked that the Army sought to avoid "let[ting] the good functions and training and art and science of this task atrophy and die out like we did after Vietnam -- the last time we made a concerted effort to train combat advisors." Much of this "art and science" was codified in doctrine with the Army's publication in May 2009 of FM 3-07.1 Security Force Assistance (pdf), an imperfect manual that nonetheless provided tactical guidance both to AABs and to individual combat advisors. This institutional commitment of more than two years ago looks very much like the one Barno, Exum, and Irvine would like the Army to make today.

The purported institutional shortcomings highlighted in the paper -- such as a failure to offer sufficient promotion and assignment incentives to encourage the most capable officers to volunteer for advisory roles -- were considered and addressed years ago, when the U.S. military first had this conversation with itself during the Iraq war. Most were discarded as unworkable or counterproductive, as was the transformational fantasy of a permanent advisor corps. (Consider the budget and force structure debate currently taking place in Washington, but imagine it's happening in a world where the Army's end-strength includes the equivalent of two-dozen infantry battalions dedicated solely to training and advising foreign military forces -- a task they're not even legally permitted to perform outside of war zones and other exceptional circumstances. Who do you think is first on the chopping block?) The Marine Corps has continued to provide capable personnel for MTTs, while the Army has supported the training and advisory mission through the creation and deployment of MB-SFAs.

This is not a service problem. This is a combatant command problem. It's not a matter of force generation, but force employment. When things went bad in the Arghandab River Valley as the president was finalizing plans for escalation, U.S. commanders threw 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment into the breach to replace Harry Tunnel's Stryker brigade and sustain counterinsurgency operations. Back to COIN for 2/508 -- one of the battalions of the 82d's SFA brigade, whose deployment for the train-advise-assist mission John Nagl had lauded mere months before.

Recognizing that a continuation of the status quo was unsustainable and unlikely to be effective, the U.S. faced very much the same set of questions in Afghanistan in 2009 as it had in Iraq in 2006. Was it still possible to accomplish American objectives? Could more troops or a new concept of operations improve the situation? Would precipitous transition to host-nation lead be too dangerous, risking the collapse of indigenous forces and jeopardizing U.S. interests? In 2006, a very serious and intelligent man wrote a memo for the president entitled "Transitioning to an Indirect Approach in Iraq" (pdf) in which he argued that success was still attainable if lead security responsibility were transferred to Iraqi forces. I want to share with you the meat of his argument, so I hope you'll forgive me quoting at length.
Given Iraq's unsettled politics, it is highly unlikely that American forces, even with growing Iraqi security force assistance, will be able to defeat the insurgency within the next 2-3 years. The current level of insurgency, moreover, is likely to be insensitive across a wide range of force levels. The assertion by many critics that more troops in 2003 could have nipped this insurgency in the bud or fundamentally altered its course are not credible. Likewise, increading the number of U.S. troops now is highly unlikely to be decisive. The insurgents will still control the initiative, and they can always temporarily decline to fight. Insufficient intelligence and continued strong support for the insurgency among the Sunni population will limit the strategic success of any near-term efforts. As long as the political grievances fueling the insurgency remain, the insurgency will remain.
Because of the direct approach's inability to produce decisive near-term results and its increasing cost, the longer we stay with it, the more we place our long-term goals in Iraq at risk. Continuing with this approach, moreover, does not play to American strengths. The insurgents and the states supporting them (i.e., Iran and Syria) retain the strategic initiative in Iraq, while we suffer from significantly reduced strategic freedom of action.
It is imperative that we accelerate our shift to an indirect approach, with Iraqis in the lead and Americans in support. Transitioning to an indirect approach will require that we begin and continue the drawdown of U.S. forces while the insurgency is still raging. It will require additional resources for Iraqi security forces. Most importantly, we must make our stated "main effort" our actual main effort.
Mike Vickers was not alone in his analysis, but the president disagreed. How much of the improvement in Iraq is attributable to his decision to escalate is and will continue to be a matter of debate. Perhaps the indirect approach, too, would have succeeded, but we can't know.

The same is now true in Afghanistan. The "change of mission" advocated by Barno, Exum, and Irvine might have been successful in 2009, with five years to take hold and show progress. (It seems unlikely to me, but I'm skeptical about our "strategy" and the no-safe-havens approach to antiterterrorism.) Or perhaps the course the president did choose for Iraq would have been similarly successful in Afghanistan had it been implemented with the "surge": a comprehensive foreign internal defense campaign that included elements of U.S.-led counterinsurgency and stability operations, SFA, and broad based nation assistance that cemented the authority of the legitimate civilian government and helped enable the exercise of that authority. (I doubt that, too, but it's a thought.) Instead what we got was a shadow of that, a mockery, an example of what happens when military leaders commit wholesale to a mission their government is too afraid to definitively refuse.

U.S. commanders are reaping what their predecessors have sown: giving short shrift to the essential enabling efforts that should have been a key part of their campaign plans, trying to "move the needle," show progress, and convince an indifferent public, an unimpressed president, and perhaps themselves that a war without a plausible strategic rationale is worth waging into infinity. SFA will not save us now. It is likely to be less effective than it would have been if comprehensively administered in 2009 by embedding advisors along with the troop surge, as this would've allowed the U.S.-ANA relationship to proceed along roughly the same path as the U.S.-IA relationship did before: first with U.S. units leading operations and owning battlespace, supported by host nation units with embedded American advisors; then partnered operations, where a more capable host nation unit with U.S. advisors owns its own battlespace and functions as part of a combined operation with U.S. forces; then eventually to host nation lead, where U.S. combat formations no longer operate independently and American advisors really live up to their name -- advising their foreign counterparts in independent operations as opposed to teaching and coaching them. This model may be followed to good effect in a few key districts, but reduced operational tempo with the beginning of the troop withdrawal makes it an unlikely template for the entire country.

Just the same: no matter how capable Afghan security forces may be today or in 2014 or in 2024, there will come a day where the western world forgets that it once seemed normal to spend billions of dollars sustaining an army in a place where a dead terrorist used to live. This day can perhaps be delayed, but it can't be avoided.

All of this may sound like I disagree with the paper's bottom line, but I don't. "By continuing to place its forces in the lead in counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, the United States is ultimately working against its long-term security interests." This is almost certainly true. Look back at what Vickers wrote to the president five years ago: "Because of the direct approach's inability to produce decisive near-term results and its increasing cost, the longer we stay with it, the more we place our long-term goals in Iraq at risk." Combat operations in Afghanistan are costing a fortune, depleting our force, wearing out equipment, and reducing our strategic flexibility to little evident effect. Anything that constitutes a step away from that -- even if it's still expensive and unlikely to succeed -- is something I can get behind.


  1. Gulliver, nicely done. You nailed pretty much everything. The only thing that I would add would be the mindset change needed. See John Gillette's Confusing Deference with Agreement.

  2. Agree with Mike F's post, G, very nicely done. Excellent and shrewd analysis where it is needed. I would only humbly add to your already complete and first rate analysis is that this is what happens when an army becomes trapped by its operational framework--this time around called pop centric coin--and cant see its way clear of it to better operational methods for strategy to employ to achieve policy aims at the least cost in blood and treasure.

  3. Re: CNAS, it reminds one of the quote:

    Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing...after they have exhausted all other possibilities. by Winston Churchill

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