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Ray Close on Afghanistan

TO: Distinguished Recipients
FM: John Whitbeck
 
Transmitted below is current wisdom from the very wise retired CIA Middle East expert Ray Close.
 
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Note:  The following was written without without reference to two directly relevant news stories that subsequently received prominent coverage in the world press:  (1) The leaked French diplomatic cable reporting the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, as predicting that the NATO-led military campaign against the Taliban will fail; and (2) a similarly pessimistic appraisal of the military situation from British military commander Brig. Mark Carleton-Smith. Both are germane to the points below, but were not considered when this analysis was made.

I was dismayed to read the article [below] in the national press last week, which quoted extensively from an interview with the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General David D. McKiernan.

Let me start by emphasizing the following points, lest my comments be misinterpreted or misconstrued:

I do not question Gen. McKiernan's analysis of the tactical military situation on the ground in Afghanistan today, or his estimate of the force levels that would be needed to carry out the military mission assigned to the international forces serving under his command.  I am not competent to judge those factors, and do not presume to do so. In fact, I particularly admire General McKiernan's emphatic assertion that the conflict will ultimately require a political, not a military, solution. I also appreciate McKiernan's observation that the exceptional ethnic, cultural and political complexity of Afghan society does not lend itself to wholesale duplication in Afghanistan of tactics and strategies learned in Iraq;  specifically, I was glad to learn that he does not have any intention of recruiting tribal elements, independent of the legitimate central government, to support American military operations against insurgents, as has been the case with the so-called Sunni Awakening in Iraq.

I was disturbed, however, to read that General McKiernan anticipates the need, and is proceeding with plans for, a substantial enlargement of U.S. armed forces (and NATO units, to the extent feasible) to engage in "a long and arduous counterinsurgency campaign that could last many more years".

The following are my own comments, expressed as bluntly as I can:  It is a potentially catastrophic error for the United States (and/or NATO) to make a firm commitment to win a war that they are manifestly incapable of winning.

Within the means at our disposal, that is a totally unrealistic expectation.  I cite only three very simple and straightforward reasons for that conclusion, all based on realities that no serving U.S. military officer or diplomatic official could comfortably acknowledge and express publicly even if he believed them:

(1) From a political standpoint: The people of the United States and Europe, and their democratically-elected governments, will not support another war of that scope, that cost, and that potential duration in Afghanistan.

(2)  From an economic standpoint:  The current world economic crisis would make it utterly unrealistic to contemplate such a course of action even if the United States and all its NATO allies believed unanimously that the realities of the Global War on Terror made it "imperative" that the Taliban and all remnants of al-Qa'ida be defeated and destroyed.  In six very simple words:  "We do not have the money."  To believe that this is a war that we "cannot afford to lose" simply creates a Catch-22.  Given the other hard realities that must be taken into consideration, this is a war that we cannot afford to undertake, must less attempt to win.  Period.

(3)  From a military standpoint: We do not have the manpower, the battlefield equipment or the logistical resources to conduct what General McKiernan, in all honesty, foresees as "a long and arduous counterinsurgency campaign that could last many more years."  And of course we cannot be assured of the full and long-term cooperation and support of the political and military leadership of Pakistan --- a crucial element of the equation that no one can ignore or minimize.  Putting the required pressure on Pakistan to deliver such unstinting support would unquestionably threaten the stability and legitimacy of Pakistan --- a nuclear-armed state that is, by any measure, vastly more important to the United States and Europe than is Afghanistan.  Sorry, but that is reality.

It is the inescapable duty and responsibility of the intellectual leadership of the entire world community ---- including academicians along with active practitioners of politics and diplomacy  --- to make certain that military leaders of the world are properly excluded from ultimate decision-making authority in such critical situations as we face today in Afghanistan. We are constantly being told that the crucial decisions there, as in Iraq, must be left to "the generals on the ground".  That is foolish, dangerous, and grossly unfair to the officers in question.  The generals --- brilliant, patriotic and honest as they may be as individuals (and most of them certainly are) --- cannot be expected to take a totally objective view of their assigned missions.  It is neither their duty nor their privilege to do that. Our responsibility is to make sure that our political leaders listen to honest advice, and make decisions based on reality, not misguided patriotism.  Then, and not until then, the generals are ordered to carry out national policy. To undertake another futile war, based on unrealistic and vainglorious ambitions that cannot be fulfilled, would be a betrayal of our larger national interests and responsibilities, while it poses an unfair challenge to the capabilities and even the professional integrity of our entire military establishment. 

In the specific case of Afghanistan, to enlarge the war, and then to be forced to abandon the effort in defeat and default, would be a shameful and unjust betrayal of the brave and trusting people of that tormented country. In my view, it would be a crime.

We must insist, before it is too late, that our political leaders be MUCH more careful (and honest) than they are being today.

 

Commander in Afghanistan Wants More Troops

By Ann Scott Tyson

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, October 2, 2008; A19

 

The new top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said yesterday that more American troops are urgently required to combat a worsening insurgency, but he stated emphatically that no Iraq-style "surge" of forces will end the conflict there.

 

"Afghanistan is not Iraq," said Gen. David D. McKiernan, who led ground forces during the 2003 Iraq invasion and took over four months ago as head of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan.

 

Speaking in Washington yesterday, McKiernan described Afghanistan as "a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq." The country's mountainous terrain, rural population, poverty, illiteracy, 400 major tribal networks and history of civil war all make for unique challenges, he said.

 

"The word I don't use for Afghanistan is 'surge,' " McKiernan stressed, saying that what is required is a "sustained commitment" to a counterinsurgency effort that could last many years and would ultimately require a political, not military, solution.

 

The strategic differences or similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan have emerged as an issue in the presidential campaign. In last week's debate between the candidates, for example, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) said that "the same strategy that [Sen. Barack Obama] condemned in Iraq, that's going to have to be employed in Afghanistan."

 

McCain said he is confident that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq who will soon oversee Afghanistan and the broader region as the head of U.S. Central Command, will succeed in applying that strategy.

 

Another facet of the Iraq strategy that McKiernan doubts can be duplicated in Afghanistan is the U.S. military's programs to recruit tribes to oppose insurgents. That effort, begun in 2006 in Iraq's Anbar province, led a loose coalition of tribes to turn against the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and side with the U.S. military. It was expanded in early 2007 in a U.S. military effort to hire local tribesmen and former insurgents to serve as armed guards in their neighborhoods. In Iraq, nearly 100,000 of the volunteers, primarily Sunnis, are on the job.

 

Tribal engagement in Afghanistan is also vital, McKiernan said, but it must be carried out through the Afghan government and not by the U.S. military.

 

"I don't want the military to be engaging the tribes," he said. Given Afghanistan's complicated system of rival tribes and ethnic groups and the recent history of civil war, allying with the wrong tribe risks rekindling internecine conflict, he said. "It wouldn't take much to go back to a civil war."

 

Overall, McKiernan offered a sober view of Afghanistan, saying the violence is more intense than he had anticipated, particularly in the east and south. The U.S. military death toll has risen to more than 130 this year, exceeding the 117 killed last year and reaching a new annual high since the war began in 2001.

 

Attacks into Afghanistan from Pakistan have escalated, but the coordination of U.S., Afghan and Pakistani forces in the border region remains weak. "We are just scratching the surface, if you will" in coordinating actions along the porous border, he said.

 

An influx of foreign fighters across the border is bolstering the Taliban insurgency and has shown a "significant increase from what we saw this time last year," he said, pointing to intelligence that picked up fighters speaking Uzbek, Chechen, Arabic and other languages.

 

"We are in a very tough fight," he said. "The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."

 

Additional U.S. and other international troops, helicopters and intelligence-gathering equipment are needed "as quickly as possible" to counter the insurgency, McKiernan said. He said he has asked for four more U.S. military combat brigades to fight the insurgents and train the Afghan army and police. One brigade will deploy to Afghanistan in January, although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last month that the other three might not be available until next spring or summer, as more troops leave Iraq.

 

A sizable international force will be required in Afghanistan for years until a "tipping point" is reached that allows the Afghan army and police to take responsibility for security, he said. An effort is underway to double the size of the Afghan army, now about 67,000 strong, McKiernan said.

 

The decision to increase U.S. troop levels came after Gates tried to persuade NATO allies and other countries to boost their contributions, with limited success. McKiernan voiced frustration yesterday that restrictions on the combat roles of some international forces degrade the coalition's efforts. "Some come to conduct war; some come to summer camp, quite frankly," McKiernan said.

 
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