No easy call on Afghanistan commitment

This week, President Obama is expected to announce his decision about the size of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan.

Most believe the withdrawal number will be somewhere between Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin’s suggestion of 15,000 troops and ranking member John McCain’s 3,000 troops.

I believe 15,000 is the right number, but anyone who is knowledgeable about the situation in Afghanistan and present budget constraints knows that the president has an extremely difficult decision to make.

Our military involvement in Afghanistan — the country where the 9/11 attack was organized — was initially supported by an overwhelming majority of Americans.

I believe that without American military action in Afghanistan our country would have been the victim of another major terrorist attack.

Media pundits who say we have just been “lucky” are wrong. What we have done in Afghanistan and in other places around the world has made it very difficult for terrorists to organize, train for, and supply a major attack on the U.S. homeland.

The only way to successfully combat terrorists like the Taliban is a counterinsurgency or COIN strategy. COIN was developed by the U.S. military after detailed study of terrorist efforts over the last 50 years to overthrow governments from Vietnam through Iraq.

Its basic tenet is that success is impossible unless the people of the country believe they are better off with their present government than they are with a terrorist government.

Our military has done a superb job in Afghanistan, but parts of our COIN strategy have been failing badly. Why? The first and main reason is the corruption and incompetence of the present Afghan government.

In 2009, when I made my first of three visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan, only 6 percent of the Afghan people supported the Taliban. Since then, Transparency International has ranked Afghanistan 176th of 178 countries on its corruption index, and the corruption is only getting worse.

The Karzai government participated in blatant election fraud in 2009, fired officials who tried to clean up corruption, and has made it impossible to prosecute corrupt officials. We have to face the fact that President Karzai and his government have by now made the Taliban look acceptable to far more Afghans.

The second obstacle to success has been the number and quality of the troops in the Afghan security forces. Under COIN strategy, the Afghan security forces should consist of more than the 600,000 security forces now operating in the less populous Iraq.

Despite herculean efforts and the billions of dollars we have spent to train them, the latest U.S. Army estimate is that Afghan security forces number only about 300,000.

The third obstacle has been the lack of U.S. and Afghan civilian involvement in the effort.

Under COIN, first the military clears the Taliban from an area. Then troops are placed in the area to prevent a return of the Taliban.

Finally, civilian authorities begin to build institutions and foster economic development that can occur only after security has been established.

While the U.S. has spent billions on these efforts, those authorities have never been up to what is required. In a country of 30 million people, with 140,000 NATO and 300,000 Afghan security forces, the State Department still has fewer than 1,200 civilians active outside of Kabul.

Finally, Pakistan has remained an uncertain ally and a perplexing obstacle to any success in Afghanistan. Much of the criticism against the Pakistan government centers on its lack of will in fighting the terrorists and the duplicity of its intelligence service.

While these are real problems, I believe the major problem is that Pakistan does not have the proper troop configuration or training to be successful in the tribal areas adjoining Afghanistan.

Either way, it is difficult to achieve success if the Taliban has a safe haven in Pakistan.

President Obama’s decision this week must take all of this into account. Based on the lack of progress on the ground, I believe the drawdown should be significant. Unfortunately, the result of any drawdown in troops will be to decrease pressure on the terrorists and increase the risk of an attack on the U.S. homeland.

We cannot, however, continue to suffer American troops killed and maimed and spend more billions of dollars if we do not have confidence in the ultimate stability of Afghanistan.

Originally published 19 Jun 2011 on