Thursday, June 24, 2010

Continuing Afghanistan War Concerns

It was unfortunate it became necessary for President Obama to replace General Stanley McChrystal as our top military commander in Afghanistan. General McChrystal was apparently a widely admired senior military officer who had a great career, but now it's likely he will soon retire from public service. However, President Obama was lucky to have highly regarded General David Petraeus available and willing to accept the very difficult job as his replacement. Our mission and military strategies are not expected to change, but the hope and expectation is that General Petraeus will do a more effective job of working with Obama's national security team and the political and military leaders of our coalition allies, several of whom have or are leaning towards withdrawing many or all of their troops.

There are a great many concerns about this war shared by most Americans and I spelled out some of these in my posts published in October and December last year. One of the big ones that still bothers many of us is what specifically our mission is over there, whether or not the war is really winnable, and how winnable is clearly defined. We must assume Obama, Secretary of Defense Gates and most of our military leaders believe definitely it's winnable. My understanding is that a "win" should be defined more or less as a situation where: a) Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, have been killed or captured with Al Qaeda no longer considered a significant threat; b) the Taliban and related extremists' insurgent activities are greatly contained over the longer run; and c) a relatively stable and democratic Afghan government and its military and police forces can govern most of the country reasonably well, providing needed basic services to its people, and defend the country against any external aggression, largely on their own.

I submit the above definition of a "win", based on what I've heard and read from our leaders over the past year or two, although a day or two ago I heard President Obama state that our goal in Afghanistan "is to reverse the momentum of the Taliban," and I haven't heard so much lately about capturing or killing bin Laden and Zawahiri. I do have a sense that the Administration's defining of our mission or goals has had a tendency to shift a little from time to time. And this does concern me, but perhaps that's inevitable in a drawn-out, dynamic and difficult situation like we find ourselves in.

Based on what we've experienced so far, is a "win" with the above definition really achievable? If so, how long will it take and what will it cost? How likely is it that, once contained, the Taliban will not recruit new fighters and again become a big insurgent threat, after most or all of our troops and those of our coalition partners leave?

Though we've been unable to find and capture or kill bin Laden and Zawahiri after nine long years of trying, I think that's still possible, but we can't be very optimistic about 'b' and 'c,' it seems to me. Why? Almost everyone, including Secretary Gates and Senator Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledge that we have challenging issues with President Karzai, some of his cabinet ministers, several of the tribal chiefs, endemic corruption, and senior elements of the military and national security staff in neighboring Pakistan, where a majority of Taliban fighters are still recruited and trained.

As a reminder, the war started on 10/07/01 when we launched our "Operation Enduring Freedom" with British support in response to Al Qaeda's savage and unprovoked attacks on us on 9/11/01. About two weeks ago we marked the 104th month of U. S. military engagement in Afghanistan, and it became the longest war in U. S. history. Its cost to date, based on my research is roughly $280 billion, and recent monthly costs at about $6.5 billion are now outpacing our costs in Iraq. There have been approximately 1,800 coalition fatalities, of which the U. S. has suffered 1,125 and the U. K. over 300. About a dozen other European countries have also had numerous fatalities. Nearly 10,000 coalition soldiers have been wounded, at least 6,355 of whom have been American. These are enormous costs and, of course, unfortunately they go up more or less daily!

Even though we've been fighting with our coalition partners in Afghanistan for about nine years, incurring these very high costs in blood and treasure, President Karzai has recently made it clear he is concerned about the level of our commitment. He is very aware Obama has emphasized the Administration will have a serious review of our action plans in Afghanistan in December this year, based on a report from General Petraeus, and that in July 2011 Obama and his national security team hope to begin a schedule of troop reductions. Although the schedule depends on the conditions on the ground, i. e. how the war is going and how Karzai, his administration and his security forces are performing in governance, providing services, and protecting their citizens, Karzai and his team realize the time is fast approaching that he will need to cope with fewer and fewer U. S. troops and advisors. Of some concern, though understandable from his point of view, he has already made feelers to "moderate" Taliban elements about joining forces with his government.

Obama is in a very tough situation. As many in the media have emphasized, he "owns" this war now, not former president George Bush. His reelection prospects and presidential legacy will most probably be adversely affected if the Afghan war goes badly over the next 12 months, even though realistically he has little control over the outcome. Certainly he will not be reelected in 2012, if he pulls out all our troops between now and July 2011, while the war is going badly, though more and more Americans likely would like to see that happen. Our troops will continue to perform courageously and very well, and I'm confident that Petraeus will work very hard and do the best he possibly can. But Obama is highly dependent on General Petraeus, his staff, how well his national security team works with Petraeus, how well Karzai and his administration perform and cooperate with Petraeus, and, also critical, how well the Pakistani civilian and military leaders perform their responsibilities in fighting the Taliban and other terrorists, and cooperate with Petraeus.

Very regrettably, we must expect significantly higher American and coalition partners casualties over the next several months as Petraeus manages the difficult and dangerous Kandahar campaign against the Taliban and their affiliated insurgents. Reportedly, there are only an estimated 10,000 Taliban fighters in total, with just 2,000 to 3,000 who are fighting full-time and are highly motivated. But in this kind of insurgent war, they will still be difficult to defeat. Unfortunately, we must also expect that our monthly costs for the overall war will also continue to rise between now and the end of the year as the number of our troops in the country increases to close to 100,000 and the Kandahar campaign is pursued.

Americans must hope that the campaign goes very well, our casualties are much lower than we feared, that the Afghan and Pakistani leaders do their jobs surprisingly well, and that General Petraeus will be able to deliver a very positive report to President Obama and Secretary Gates in December, facilitating the prospects for our troop reductions beginning next July.

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