We're still figuring out our goals in Afghanistan. That's a good thing.

Military analysis.
Feb. 5 2009 6:59 PM

What Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

We're still figuring that out.

A U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
A U.S. Marine in Afghanistan

Not long ago, Afghanistan was known as "the good war." Now some are calling it "Obama's Vietnam." Both tags exaggerate. Across hundreds of years of sorrowful history, no war in Afghanistan has ever been good. And Vietnam was different in so many ways that parallels with the war against the Taliban tend to muddy more than clarify. (Ho Chi Minh was the legitimate leader of a unified polity, the United States violated international law by blocking countrywide elections, U.S. troop levels grew to 500,000 at their peak, etc.)

But the specter of Vietnam does, or should, haunt us in one compelling sense: the reasonable fear that we are about to step into a bigger, thicker pile of mud—a more all-enveloping quagmire, if you will—than the first step of escalation might suggest.

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Unlike those who got us into Vietnam, today's top officials—including President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates—at least see the specter. Both have emphasized that their goals in Afghanistan are limited; daydreams of turning the place into a democratic republic—"some central Asian Valhalla," as Gates snorted in recent hearings—are over. Gates further stated at those hearings, before the Senate armed services committee, that he would endorse his commanders' request for three additional brigades—but that he'd be "deeply skeptical" of subsequent requests for more. The fighting needs to be done mainly by Afghan troops, he said, adding that if the Afghan people begin to see it as an American war, "we will go the way of other imperial occupiers."

This is reassuring. However, even "limited" goals can justify a vast military expansion.

For instance, Obama and Gates have said that their "strategic objective" is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States or destabilize the region.

However, military commanders need to translate that strategic objective into an "operational goal," and there are many, very different ways to do that—each requiring different levels of troops performing very different missions.

Some argue that the best way is to step up attacks on Taliban and al-Qaida forces directly, as—or perhaps before—they cross the border from Pakistan. Others say it's better to stop chasing terrorists all over the countryside and instead to protect the Afghan population, provide basic services, and build their trust. But since resources are limited, which segments of the population do you protect—those in the cities, where most of the people live, or in the villages, where the Taliban have made their deepest incursions?

President Obama has talked of sending three extra brigades to Afghanistan. That means about 12,000 combat troops. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, talks of deploying 30,000 extra troops—doubling the 30,000 we have there now.

These numbers sound far apart, but they're not. Obama's three brigades would also require "enablers"—military jargon for the personnel who enable the combat brigades to fight. They would include an aviation brigade (already in place), a division headquarters, a support brigade, military police, medics, military engineers (to build the expanded barracks and bases), and so on. Add all this into the mix, and you get 30,000 extra troops. Obama and Mullen are talking about the same troop boost.

How did they come up with this number? This is where the cause for worry begins. It didn't come from any assessment of how many troops are needed for a particular mission. No decisions about a specific mission—an operational goal—have yet been made.

The request for three brigades stems from one fact and one fact only: That's how many brigades will be available this year, as more troops pull out of Iraq.

It's a number based on what we have, not on what we need. It has no substantive rationale.

There soon will be a rationale, and it may well be the product of systematic thinking. Three "strategic reviews" of Afghanistan are currently in the works, due to be finished this month—one by the National Security Council, one by the Pentagon's Joint Staff, one by Gen. David Petraeus' staff and advisers at U.S. Central Command. (Petraeus' review encompasses Afghanistan, Iraq, and the surrounding region.)

Each review is being conducted separately, but they are all dealing with the same questions: Given the president's strategic objective, what are the operational goals, and how much do we need—how many forces, of what kind, doing what, for how long, at what cost—to succeed?

Judging from press accounts and from my own conversations with officials and advisers involved in these reviews, a consensus seems to be developing that—in the medium to long term—we should put most of our efforts into a counterinsurgency campaign, along the lines of Gen. Petraeus' field manual on the subject. This conforms to the school of thought that the best way to defeat insurgents is not to chase them here and there, but to protect the Afghan population and help build loyalty to the government.

However, there are widely differing views—both between and within the review teams—over what to do in the short term (as well as over how long the short term might last). The problem, widely acknowledged, is that a certain level of security has to be attained before a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign can work—and that many Afghan cities, villages, and roads haven't reached that level.

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