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Pentagon shifting Afghanistan war strategy to 'shoot more bad guys'?

A White House review of Afghanistan war strategy finds progress, but at the Pentagon support is growing for a shift toward more hard power.

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According to a report by two CNAS fellows – retired Gen. David Barno, former NATO commander in Afghanistan, and Andrew Exum, a former Army Ranger – with the US drawdown in Afghanistan expected to begin next July, the Pentagon will need to focus more on counterterrorism operations.

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In a sober assessment, the report warned that “No immediate solution to the war in Afghanistan is likely.” After nine years of “inconclusive fighting,” write Barno and Exum, Afghanistan increasingly resembles a “wicked problem” in which “all outcomes are likely to be suboptimal for the United States, its allies, and the Afghan people.”

The impact of the $336 billion that America has spent in Afghanistan to date has been “deeply disappointing,” they said.

The authors argue that America will soon need to scale down its operations – and its expectations. “Recent disappointments combined with Afghanistan’s long history of weak central government argue for a more realistic objective: limited central government with power devolved to the provinces and districts.”

By 2014 – the year that Mr. Karzai has said he wants Afghan police and soldiers to take responsibility for providing security throughout the country – the United States will need to move from a “resource intensive counterinsurgency campaign” to a “less costly – and thus more sustainable – strategy in Afghanistan.”

If that is the likely outcome by 2014, some argue that to save the expense and troops' lives, why not focus on counterterrorism operations now? This was precisely the argument of Mr. Biden, many note, when he proposed his own “counterterrorism-plus” strategy during the White House strategy review conducted before President Obama decided to deploy tens of thousands of additional US troops to Afghanistan.

Journalist Bob Woodward, author of "Obama’s Wars," took note of this fact at a CNAS forum he moderated Wednesday with Barno and Exum. “Joe Biden reads this report and he’s going to say, ‘Hey, this is exactly where I was last year.' "

Barno demurred. “I’m not sure we knew what the Biden counterterrorism plus one” plan was, precisely, he said, noting that the Biden plan never had a timeline or force structure associated with it.

Critics say that might not have been the case had the Pentagon more seriously considered Biden’s proposal. There seems to be little argument, however, that America still has vital interests in the region, chief among them keeping Al Qaeda from maintaining havens in Afghanistan and stabilizing Pakistan.

But as July approaches – the date President Obama has set for beginning to draw down US forces in Afghanistan – the question, senior military officials say, is how best to do this. “Are you winning the battles and losing the war?” asked Cartwright in his Dec. 8 speech. “Or are you, in fact, understanding the strategic side of this equation?” Those are precisely the answers military planners will be seeking in the months to come.

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