‘Open Letter’ to Obama on Afghanistan Omits Key Questions

In this Oct. 2, 2015 file photo, Afghan security forces inspect the site of a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz city, north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

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In this Oct. 2, 2015 file photo, Afghan security forces inspect the site of a U.S. airstrike in Kunduz city, north of Kabul, Afghanistan.

Staying the course won’t work if we don’t know where we’re going.

An open letter to President Obama on the way ahead in Afghanistan was recently signed by a distinguished group of former military commanders and ambassadors who served there. Simultaneously, Gen. Mick Nicholson is finishing up his initial assessment of the situation, which includes recommendations to the commander-in-chief on what is needed to support the continuation of U.S. involvement in the war.

The timing is no accident. Clearly, these former senior officials mean to signal support for General Nicholson’s recommendations, the details of which are just now emerging: eliminate timelines for withdrawing U.S. forces, maintain current force levels for the indefinite future, and give commanders more flexibility in employing those forces. Yet their letter says nothing about the most crucial of questions: exactly what will these U.S. forces be doing and to what end?

Currently, just more than half of the U.S. military men and women in Afghanistan are serving under the auspices of Operation Resolute Support, the NATO mission to build institutional capacity in the Afghan defense sector. The work these U.S. troops and their NATO partners are doing to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Security and Defense Force is very carefully circumscribed. Rather than improving effectiveness at the operational or tactical level, the focus is mostly on defense institution building: improving the capability of the Afghan defense establishment to raise and maintain an armed force, keep them in the field, and ensure that they are manned, equipped and trained to fight the Taliban. NATO personnel are to be embedded at no level below the corps headquarters — that is, hardly “embedded” at all. Indeed, Resolute Support is the closest we have come to a “non-combat mission” since the war began almost 15 years ago.

The remainder of the U.S. contingent—the number fluctuates around 4,000 — are there for Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, a U.S. mission.  Though sometimes downplayed by official labels, many of the operations conducted as part of Freedom’s Sentinel look quite a bit like combat: security operations to protect Resolute Support facilities and personnel, counterterrorism kill/capture operations conducted by special operations forces, and in extremis support provided under strict guidelines to NATO and (sometimes) ANSDF forces in contact.

When the retired senior officials advocate in their letter for “a freeze at the level of roughly ten thousand U.S. troops though January,” do they mean to imply that the distribution of these forces between Resolute Support and Freedom’s Sentinel and their respective roles and missions should remain roughly the same?

That does not seem to be what General Nicholson has in mind. The few details that have emerged about his initial assessment indicate that he is interested in more actively fighting the Taliban insurgency. To support this more offensive approach, he has asked for authority to strike pre-emptively at Taliban targets, a larger role for U.S. airpower in supporting ANSDF operations, and an expanded role for U.S. advisors.

Perhaps this is because he does not fully concur with the letter’s somewhat casual observation that the ANSDF should be considered a “moderately effective security force,” even though most impartial accounts say it is failing badly. The Taliban reportedly control more districts in Afghan provinces than at any time since they were unseated from power in 2001. ANSDF and Afghan civilian casualties are at an all-time high. Recent well-publicized setbacks in the north (e.g., Kunduz) and steady losses in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south have offered no cause for optimism about the ANSDF’s capabilities.

Granting coalition commanders expanded authority to strike Taliban targets pre-emptively has been under consideration for some time, and the forces currently assigned to Freedom’s Sentinel may already have the necessary associated capability.  But embedding U.S. advisors once again at the brigade—or perhaps even battalion — level is a new mission for this US force of 4,000, though the option was on the mind of Nicholson’s predecessor Gen. John Campbell as he left command in March. (Recognizing the significance of this step, Campbell was quick to add that he was not “advocating a large-scale deployment of American advisors with conventional forces.”)

If, in fact, Nicholson has been granted authority to embed combat advisors at the tactical level, and if the generals and ambassadors are tacitly supporting that approach in their letter, they are correct: a drawdown in accordance with President Obama’s timetable cannot be accomplished successfully or safely. Further, it is inconceivable that under these conditions 10,000 troops will be nearly enough to meet the resultant requirements for forces.

Surely no one is considering a reduction in the U.S. commitment to Resolute Support in order to “buy” some breathing room for a more robust Freedom’s Sentinel. The objectives of the NATO mission are absolutely critical to the eventual establishment of an Afghan military that can carry on by itself when outside support is drawn down. And the impact on the Alliance of a reduction in the U.S. role would have repercussions beyond just the mission in Afghanistan.

So how does the U.S. increase the number of missions to support ANSDF operations with air support and indirect fire, while finding the troops it will take to embed combat advisor teams in brigades and battalions?  Unnamed Pentagon officials have stressed that these advisor teams, generally 10 to 20 soldiers, will only accompany ANSDF units when the mission they have been assigned will bring “strategic effects.” There are at least four Afghan army corps that are operating in provinces where these strategic effects are sorely needed: the north around Kunduz, along the border with Pakistan in the east, and in the south, the traditional homeland of the Taliban.  Each corps has three to four brigades with three to four battalions per brigade.  Embedding combat advisers in these units will create demand for trained advisors who are currently not in theater (the only U.S. embedded combat advisers currently in Afghanistan are special forces soldiers working with ANSDF special operations battalions).  

To complicate matters, it is inconceivable that General Nicholson is contemplating embedding tactical advisors with conventional units without expanding the coalition’s ability to support them with critical combat capabilities: dedicated emergency fire support, quick reaction forces, MEDEVAC, and logistical support beyond what the ANSDF units can provide.

Making or deciding on recommendations on the way ahead for the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan requires a full accounting for these factors.

That accounting should begin with a clear proposition about the ultimate objective of U.S. operations in Afghanistan, along the lines of what Stephen Biddle offered at Defense One last week. Biddle is no doubt correct in his conclusion: “there is no longer any meaningful prospect to defeat the Taliban.” He argues for finding a way to “end the war on terms Americans and Afghans can live with,” which means a negotiated settlement. Admittedly, the odds against finding terms to support such a settlement are very high, and bringing enough of the interested parties to the table to hammer out an agreement will be difficult. But those odds approach the insurmountable if recommendations on the way ahead in Afghanistan that carry the day are the ones that are based on the notion that the war against the Taliban can be “won.”

So if we can accept that the goal is a settlement, what type of military effort will be necessary to support attaining that goal? Those who argue that a timetable might constrain that effort are no doubt correct. But making that argument convincingly requires a frank discussion about the nature of the missions that will be required and an upfront acknowledgment if those missions cannot be realistically supported within the 10,000-man cap. In his last few months in office, this commander-in-chief will make some of the most important decisions about Afghanistan that have ever been made by an American president. As is his wont, he will likely consider advice from many sources. If that advice focuses primarily on extending a timeline without a complete and frank treatment of what can and should be done with more time—and the full implications of such a decision—he will not have been well served. 

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