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.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama delivers a statement on the Afghanistan-Pakistan Annual Review from the White House Briefing Room in Washington on Dec. 16. The review said 'notable operational gains' had been made since thousands of US troops were surged into Afghanistan under President Obama’s orders.

The White House assessment of the war in Afghanistan released Thursday does not stray from the Pentagon's prediction that, by year's end, there would be notable progress on the ground there. A bit surprising, however, has been the subtle movement of some senior military officials and key White House advisers away from counterinsurgency – and toward a more cost-effective, and less troop-intensive, strategy.

The assessment of the US military’s work this year, prepared by the National Security Council with considerable Pentagon input, finds “notable operational gains” since thousands of US troops were surged into the country under President Obama’s orders. “Most important, al Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan is weaker and under more sustained pressure than at any other point since it fled Afghanistan in 2001,” reads the report.

As expected, it paints a rosier picture than does the National Intelligence Estimate, the summary of progress put forward by 16 US intelligence agencies and released to some members of Congress last week.

The White House report concludes that the current US strategy in Afghanistan “is setting the conditions to begin the responsible reduction of US forces in 2011.” The challenge, it notes, “remains to make our gains durable and sustainable.”

But behind the scenes support is growing among senior Pentagon leadership for a considerable shift in US strategy. It would be a shift based, supporters say, on harsh cost realities and a war that, in the words of the go-to think tank for the Obama administration, remains “a wicked problem” in which “all outcomes are likely to be suboptimal for the United States, its allies, and the Afghan people” despite the “yeoman efforts of the last nine years.”

Throughout that time, US soldiers have become earnest students of counterinsurgency warfare. It is the strategy and a belief, championed by Gen. David Petraeus, that the key to winning in America’s current wars is earning the trust and support of the people through good security and strong government programs. In emphasizing building up the state and protecting citizens, counterinsurgency advocates tend to deemphasize insurgent death tolls as a measure of success.

The problem, critics say, is that counterinsurgency requires a lot of soldiers. It is also expensive – no small consideration during an economic slump and a war that by next year will have cost the United States at least $250 billion.

Equally important, counterinsurgency requires a strong partner government – one that senior military officials concede is currently lacking in Afghanistan. In a report earlier this year, the White House said the Afghan government led by President Hamid Karzai was “unsatisfactory throughout the first half of 2010.”

Senior Pentagon officials and some of the top advisers to the US military’s war effort have been warning, too, that in a vast and poor country like Afghanistan in which there seems to be little support for a strong central government after nearly a decade, America’s strategy focused on building it up may be misplaced.

The shift advocated by some senior military officials would involve moving away from counterinsurgency and toward a strategy of counterterrorism – the Pentagon’s shorthand for the more conventional approach of aggressively pursuing and killing insurgents, generally with small teams of special operations forces.

It is a plan that has long been pushed by Vice President Joe Biden – and dismissed during the first White House strategy review by some senior military officials loyal to Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The counterinsurgency strategy has only recently had the troop strength it requires to be implemented in earnest, they say, and needs more time. Counterinsurgency practice, they add, also involves killing and capturing insurgents—in other words, the two approaches are not mutually exclusive.

But one indicator that the Pentagon is thinking seriously about pursuing counterterrorism over counterinsurgency came in little-publicized remarks last week from Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the No. 2 military officer. “When we started, we probably were more aligned with counterinsurgency. The emphasis is shifting,” he said in a speech at the National Press Club on Dec. 8. “The balance of the force that was really weighted more toward counterinsurgency is starting to shift to have an element of counterterrorism larger than we thought we were going to need when we started.”

This view was seconded by what many regard as an unlikely source – a think tank, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), known within the US military as a center of counterinsurgency study. It also has the ear of top defense officials: The Pentagon’s policy director and number three civilian, Michele Flournoy, is a former head of the center.

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.

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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