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The 'Conditions-Based' Afghan Loophole

Author: Colonel Gian Gentile, USA, Former Visiting Fellow
December 16, 2010

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Center for a New American Security (CNAS) just released a report with a blueprint for an American drawdown in Afghanistan to a point by 2014 where there would approximately thirty-five thousand American troops left in the country. The report argues that a gradual decrease in the number of U.S. troops and a move away from fully resourced counterinsurgency (nation building) can occur over the next four years. It also states that by 2014 the United States will be able to turn over most of the fighting to Afghan security forces while it carries out a more limited military campaign against any leftover al-Qaeda fighters in the country.

This is encouraging. Senior American generals seem to agree with the blueprint and its promise of success and eventual drawdown in Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, commander of International Security Forces in Afghanistan, noted that his troops over the last few months had "arrested the momentum of the Taliban" (Bloomberg) and had "reversed the tide" of the war in certain critical areas. With such traditional language of war used by General Petraeus, drawing on images of U.S. forces turning the tide by landing on the coast of Normandy during World War II, "victory" or at least "light at the end of the tunnel" does not seem too far off.

To be sure, the central idea in the CNAS report of transitioning to a much smaller commitment in blood and treasure in Afghanistan is a step in the right direction. American strategy in Afghanistan currently suffers from a dysfunctional mismatch between the heavy amount of resources committed through a long-term campaign of nation building and President Barack Obama's reasonably limited core political goal in the region to "disrupt, disable, and defeat" al-Qaeda. The president did not list building an Afghan nation as a core U.S. political goal. Yet current U.S. strategy has been unable to discern this fundamental mismatch and adjust accordingly.

So while the report is an important first step to help bring U.S. strategy back in line with its core political goals in Afghanistan, that's all it is.

The CNAS report claims to articulate a comprehensive strategy to actually transition to a smaller American commitment in Afghanistan. It uses seductive military terms like "concept of operations." It proposes not just a military approach but also one that involves the ongoing building of government capacity in Afghanistan, economic assistance, and building local Afghan security forces.

But in the end, the report only offers the hope of a strategy that will transition the United States to a smaller commitment, encoded in the report's description of a transition that is "both a time-driven and conditions-based approach."

American strategy in Afghanistan currently suffers from a dysfunctional mismatch between the heavy amount of resources committed through a long-term campaign of nation building and President Obama's reasonably limited core political goal in the region to "disrupt, disable, and defeat" al-Qaeda.

The term "conditions-based," followed by acknowledgment that some conditions could change the duration of the drawdown--for example, a "resurgent Taliban" or ineffective Afghan security forces--raises the question of who determines whether conditions are right for the drawdown. The answer seems to be the U.S. military and its senior generals in Afghanistan. So the CNAS report ultimately leaves us with what we have now: an open-ended campaign for long-term nation building in Afghanistan which, ironically, is what the report says it is not calling for.

The Vietnam War and the U.S. drawdown from it come to mind.

As the United States began its withdrawal from Vietnam after the 1968 Tet Offensive and the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird went to Vietnam to tell the commanding general, Creighton Abrams, that the United States was in fact leaving. Laird became the mechanism, so to speak, that pushed the American military to a program of withdrawal. Laird told Abrams that the United States really was leaving Vietnam and soon, and not by a trickle but by a substantial amount. His point to Abrams was that the drawdown would happen, even if the military didn't think the "conditions" were right for it. By early spring of 1973, the United States was out of Vietnam.

Who will be the Laird for Afghanistan? If writer Bob Woodward is correct in his newest book Obama's War, it will not come out of the American defense establishment since it did everything it could, as Woodard argued, to box the president into long-term nation building in Afghanistan.

With regard to Afghanistan and this new CNAS report on "transition" there is no mechanism to bring about the transition to a strategically sensible approach, only some lose hope that the "conditions" will be right for it to occur.

"Conditions-based" is a strategic "loophole" of the first order that will help to perpetuate America's strategic dysfunction in Afghanistan. Absent a mechanism to force a change in strategy, the United States will continue to be boxed in by the tactics of counterinsurgency and the promise that with a lot of patience they might someday achieve results.

The tactics of counterinsurgency will determine whether or not the conditions for a change in strategy have been met. Tragically, American strategy in Afghanistan has become subordinate to the tactics of counterinsurgency and the Army that faithfully and painfully carries it out.

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