Friday, August 08, 2008

Afghanistan War - Version 7.5

Seven years into the faltering war in Afghanistan, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has a new idea - more of the same.

Seven years.

Washington, apparently flummoxed by how poorly that miserable conflict has been going, has decided the solution might be to double the size of the Afghan National Army and a quiet absorption of NATO forces under direct American command.

What's that you say, NATO being transformed into America's Foreign Legion? Bingo!

For the past gloriously successful seven years, we Infidels have been arrayed in two groups - the strictly American, Operation Enduring Freedom (or something jingoistic like that), and the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, under the auspices of NATO, or whatever members Brussels can scrape up to send troops to Afghanistan. ISAF has operated under NATO command with the top jobs rotating among the participating nations - i.e. Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, etc.

Gates wants to put an end to that with a unified command. In terms of military science, unifying the command makes sense, in fact it's long overdue. Five years overdue at least. Back when the White House decided to pull a big hunk of its forces out of Afghanistan so it could play in the sandbox of Iraq, the OEF/ISAF forces should have been restructured. A bit late now.

There are serious problems with Gates' latest proposal. The first is that he's not proposing to put the OEF American forces under NATO command. He wants the NATO/ISAF force to enlist with the American force. What's wrong with that is that Britain, Canada and the Dutch have a much different point of view on how the Afghan conflict should be fought. We're not on the same page with the bomb'em, shell'em, obliterate'em Americans. That, of course, would be resolved once we started marching to the Pentagon's tune.

Another problem is that this would damage the already weakened and wobbly NATO alliance. It would be superseded by a de facto "coalition of the willing" a lot like the one that really didn't work out very well in Iraq. The potential ramifications of that could reach far beyond Afghanistan. On the other hand, it would give some of the NATO members now reluctantly in Afghanistan a perfect excuse to leave. They only signed on to serve under NATO command, not the Pentagon's. Oh dear.

Gates is clearly on to that little sticking point. It came through in the astonishingly contradictory explanation proffered by the Pentagon spokesman as reported in The New York Times:

“General McKiernan is in the best possible position to most efficiently and effectively deploy all of the resources to the benefit of the overall mission,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “This creates one commander in country and in charge of all forces, and establishes a structure to deploy them as best suits the mission and to improve synchronization among all military assets.”

In the months ahead, NATO and the United States will nevertheless continue to pursue somewhat different missions in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials said, and the new command structure will not result in a merger of the two missions [yeah, right].

Pentagon policy makers said one goal of the command restructuring would be to allow the movement of American and allied troops — including the British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers who participate in a full range of combat missions — to support one another in a more seamless fashion. It remains unclear if the change will persuade the militaries operating under restrictions to take on additional battlefield responsibilities.

The command reorganization implies that an American officer will be in charge of the NATO and American missions for the foreseeable future.

Now expanding the Afghan National Army probably makes sense but only if it's done in conjunction with a top-down housecleaning of the Kabul and provincial governments. Not much point in building a bigger army to serve the feckless and corrupt Karzai government. If the ANA is to have any hope of surviving as a national institution after we're gone (and I presume we'll all be gone at some point, right?) then the country has to purge its troublesome warlords. Until they're gone, stripped of their powers, the Kabul administration can never truly govern as a national government. And, until Kabul stands as a viable, national government, the size of the Afghan National Army is essentially irrelevant. Without a strong, central government the Afghan National Army will remain at risk of dissolving into the traditional, ethnic militias once we take our leave. Take a look at what happened to the previous Afghan National Army when the Soviets pulled out.

The ultimate flaw in Gates' proposal is that it's a purely military response to a situation that has no military solution. It's so fraught with gaps and pitfalls that, in the long run, it could do vastly more damage than good - to the United States, to NATO and to Afghanistan.

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