Saturday, January 09, 2010

Mr. President: It's Time to Acknowledge the Harsh Truths About Afghanistan


Dear Mr. President:

In the 91 years of my life, which is to say since the end of the First World War, the United States has spent an inordinate amount of manpower, money and matériel fighting six major wars. Two of these, Vietnam (1962-1975) and Iraq (2003-2010) never should have been fought. Three of our six large-scale wars were what might be called ”good wars”: World War Two (1941-1945), in response to a surprise attack by Japan, and the two wars sanctioned by the United Nations--the Korean War (1950-1953) that masqueraded as a “police action” and the Gulf War (1991) to eject Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait.

The war in Afghanistan began in 2001 as punishment for a crime--the crime that has come to be known as 9/11--and for harboring a criminal. Unfortunately, we failed to catch the arch-criminal we sought, Osama bin Laden, who managed to slip away from Tora Bora to a prepared hideout in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan beyond our reach. In August of 2009 you told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity." There are many who would disagree with you.

Ramping Up the Troop Numbers with a New “Surge.”
In March of 2009, you authorized the doubling of the number of troops in Afghanistan to 68,000. Last December, you revealed to the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point--and the world--your decision about the direction the war in Afghanistan would take on your watch. The two massive escalations of the war you announced in March and December nearly tripled the American commitment to the conflict. No wonder the war in Afghanistan is now being called "Obama's War." So far the escalations have not resulted in any of the predicted benefits.

Since 2001, a total of 952 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, In 2009 alone, 317 U.S. soldiers died there, more than double the number killed in 2008. itself the previous record high. Britain lost 108 soldiers in Afghanistan in 2009, the most it has seen killed in one year since the 1982 Falkland Islands War with Argentina. Officials are predicting that 2010 will be even worse in terms of the overall death toll.

With 68,000 American troops “in country” in Afghanistan, you had four choices open to you. (1) You could withdraw immediately, which would have made the Pentagon and the war hawks unhappy. (2) You could have kept the number at 68,000 and announced a gradual withdrawal. (3) You could have increased the number of troops in Afghanistan to 108,000 by giving Gen. Stanley McChrystal the 40,000 troops he requested. (4) You could have given General McChrystal fewer than 40,000 troops.

Finally revealing your decision at West Point, you said, “I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan." Again there were many who did not agree with you. You added, "After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” In making this announcment, you chose the fourth course--a compromise and a cop-out. What you did not address was the key question: Can there ever be any victory in Afghanistan?

The decision about how many troops to send was never of consequence. We simply do not have enough troops to make a difference in the military outcome in Afghanistan. The huge size of that country, the mountainous nature of the terrain and the broad territory effectively controlled by the Taliban instantly dilute the effect of 30,000 additional troops. A truly serious effort would require a surge more on the order of ten times that many--a force we do not possess. Your troop surge only makes strategic sense if it is intended to strengthen our position politically as a preliminary to negotiating with the Taliban, but that Machiavellian tactic seems not to have been your intention.

Even the leaked report of General McChrystal gives evidence of muddled thinking. It says on page 2-20, "The campaign in Afghanistan has been historically under-resourced and remains so today. ISAF (International Security Asistance Force) is operating in a culture of poverty. Consequently, ISAF requires more forces." It goes on to say, "The greater resources will not be sufficient to achieve success, but will enable implementation of the new strategy. Conversely, inadequate resources will likely result in failure. However, without a new strategy, the mission should not be resourced."

In plain English, the above contorted passage says, in effect, "If you don’t send more troops to Afghanistan, we will fail. But you shouldn’t send more troops unless and until we adopt a new strategy, which we don’t have. And even if you do give us the troops we want for the new strategy we don't have, they won't be enough to achieve success."

Someone on General McChrystal's staff contributing to this report has confused the strategic and the operational levels of war. The report does not offer a new strategy but a new operational plan. How the war is fought (by following classic counter-insurgency doctrine) is operational, not strategic. The U.S. must indeed find a new strategy, because the current strategy depends on an Afghan state that simply does not exist. Yet the report offers no new strategy. No wonder you, as President, may have been confused and so compromised on the numbers.

What Can this New “Surge” Accomplish?The answer to this question is, ”Very little—except for the troops to assume a defensive posture and try to stay alive.” In order to keep casualties low and acceptable to the public back home, Gen. Stanley McChrystal will be forced to adopt a static "fortress" strategy and withdraw forces from outlying outposts to a few cities.

The Taliban’s counterstrategy will be (1) to abandon those areas we strengthen and fortify; (2) to immediately take control of areas that no longer have an American presence; (3) to bottle up the Americans and make life miserable for them in their fortresses (including Kabul) with sudden "hit-and-run" raids and suicide bombers, while harassing and cutting the supply lines to and between the fortresses with daring ambushes and roadside IEDs.

You had two choices: get in deeper or get out. Unfortunately, not being given to making bold, sweeping decisions (your appointments bear this out), instead of a daring Hail Mary pass and a damn-the-torpedoes pull-out, you punted, deferring a decision until the summer of 2011, at which time you will be faced with the same decision again in a position no more advantageous than today. But casualties and costs will have risen, making another deferment of a fact-based decision even more difficult and more expensive. And you seem to have closed your eyes to the impossibility of making an effective force of an Afghan army riddled with illiteracy, drug abuse, low pay and a 25 percent rate of desertion (often to the enemy) and at the same time expecting it to be loyal to the flagrantly graft-ridden and corruption-plagued Karzai government.

Our constitution makes the President the Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces. This arrangement made eminent good sense when the inevitable first president was heroic Gen. George Washington. In today’s complex and hostile world, the President must rely on his military chiefs for guidance. This results in an awkward, if not peculiar situation in which the military advises the President about the course of action the military will then take in carrying out the President’s orders.

A major problem arises because the generals in the Pentagon, busy bucking for promotion, have yet to realize that the world and warfare have changed. Since the end of World War II we have seen the decline of the power of nations in all parts of the world and the rise of transnational, non-state forces. As many as 30 nation-states have either failed, as have Somalia, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, or are failing in the sense that they cannot provide even the most basic services to their citizens. Respected Israeli military historian Martin van Crefeld has said in The Transformation of War that what has changed is not so much how war is fought but who fights and what they fight for.

The war in Afghanistan is a Fourth Generation conflict. The concept was first described in an article by five officers and military thinkers titled “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” and published in the October 1989 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. The generations of warfare described by these authors are:

First Generation Warfare: Tactics of line and column developed in the age of the smoothbore musket. Example: The American Revolution.

Second Generation Warfare: Tactics of linear fire and movement with great reliance on indirect artillery fire. Example: The First World War.

Third Generation Warfare: Tactics of infiltration to bypass and collapse the enemy's combat forces rather than seeking to close with and destroy them and defense in depth. Example: German Blitzkrieg in the Second World War.

Fourth Generation Warfare can be traced to the Cold War, as major powers attempted to retain their grip on restive colonies. Unable to mount direct combat against strafing fighter planes, bombing planes, tanks and machine guns, non-state entities use tactics of secrecy, terror, and confusion to overcome the technological gap.

Fourth generation warfare often involves an insurgent group or other violent non-state actors trying to implement their own government or reestablish an old government over the current government, as in Afghanistan. The aim is to force the state as adversary to expend manpower and money in an attempt to establish order, ideally in such a highhanded way that it merely increases the level of civic disorder, until the state surrenders or withdraws. Afghanistan is a perfect example.

Fourth Generation warfare is definitely more than just an untested theory. It is a stark reality. Our generals still place great faith in technology and the ability to deliver the heaviest firepower on targets by plane or drone-fired missile, basically a holdover from the First World War. This is a classic example of Second Generation tactics, as created by the French General Staff, even though we are engaged in a Fourth Generation conflict. The Taliban, very definitely a low-technology force, today claims control over about 80 percent of Afghanistan, an increase from the 72 percent estimated in 2008.

Robert Scott
Editor of Postscripts

Editor's Note: This is the third of four letters to President Obama on the war in Afghanistan.
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