February 3rd, 2012
12:00 PM ET

O'Hanlon: Please be careful on Afghanistan

Michael E. O'HanlonEditor's Note: Michael O’Hanlon was in Afghanistan earlier this month and is the author of the new ebook, The Wounded Giant: America’s Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity. You can read more from him on the Global Public Square.

By Michael O'Hanlon – Special to CNN

This week, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made big news by telling reporters that the United States would seek to end its combat role in Afghanistan sometime in 2013.

2014 had been the previous target date for such a change. The Obama administration later clarified (and caveated) this statement so it sounded like less of a big deal.  But the statement was not actually withdrawn and it does represent something of a change.

I have my concerns about the latest Panetta statement because I think the administration continues to be inadequately careful in some of its messaging about Afghanistan. Not only American voters, but key Afghan and Pakistani partners hear such language and sense an administration no longer fully committed to the mission - one rushing for the exits, especially as election day in the United States looms.

I am not accusing the administration of politicizing the war. But others increasingly worry that it is doing just that. Some clearer, firmer rhetoric about our enduring commitment is needed to compensate and the sooner the better. In addition, it is important that we make a decision fairly soon about how many U.S. forces will stay in Afghanistan next year. We should stick to that decision. Ideally, the number should be as close as possible to the 68,000 figure that we are scheduled to reach in September - down from 90,000 today and 100,000 last year.

All that said, the change in mission makes sense. On my last trip to Afghanistan in November, some American commanders were advocating a faster transition - not to wash their hands of the war, but so that Afghans could be prodded to do even more.  They wanted this transition to occur while the U.S. still had enough troops on the ground to provide assistance should the Afghans need it. Changing the mission to something that emphasizes advising and supporting (without pulling NATO troops out of combat altogether, to be sure) was not seen as an excuse to downsize faster. To the contrary, for some at least, it was seen as the right way to make use of our relatively large, enduring forces for the last year or two that they remain available in substantial numbers.

At the tactical level, one of the most brilliant and experienced Afghan experts I have ever met, former special forces officer and counterinsurgency advisor Roger Carstens, put it well in a blog at foreignpolicy.com today. I quote from his argument below:

“Left to their own devices, U.S. Army and Marine Colonels - Brigade Commanders in charge of 3,500 men and often given responsibility for one or more of Afghanistan's 34 Provinces – will relentlessly hunt down the Taliban (or Haqqani Network, etc), only nominally bringing their Afghan partners into the process.

And why should they? After all, their bosses usually made them responsible for security, governance, development, and rule of law – rating them on the progress that they make in their "battle space."

To support the efforts of the ANSF instead would require a Brigade Commander to assume risk, as the ANSF:

- may not be there in great numbers;

- may be lead by corrupt or incompetent leaders;

- may not have the staff or battlefield processes to conduct full scale military, police, and civilian operations across the area of a province;

- may not be exceptionally proficient at military or police operations.

The list goes on and on.

So rather than risk failure (and soldiers hate to fail) many (not all) commanders take on the responsibility of fixing and doing everything themselves.

Don't get me wrong - the Afghans are there - but the weight of success or failure seemingly rests on the back of the U.S. commander.

The problem with this is that if the U.S. Brigade Commander succeeds, he also fails.

Because in this counterinsurgency, the only way you ever really move towards a "win" is if you enable the Afghans in their efforts to foster security, governance, development and the rule of law in a way that makes their efforts sustainable – meaning that after we leave, the Afghans can secure their gains and hopefully make even more progress.”

Carstens is persuasive. Panetta’s mistake was to make it sound like changing the mission implied a lowering of our role. He was thinking too much about his American domestic audience and not enough about the wavering, fence-sitting Afghans and Pakistanis who wonder where to put their loyalties in the coming months and years and wonder if we are really still up to the task - and often wonder if they should hedge their own bets about which side to support in the war. But the specifics of his idea, properly balanced with an enduring U.S. commitment to Afghanistan and publicly announced plans for a gradual, careful troop drawdown, make good sense.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Michael O'Hanlon.

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Topics: Afghanistan • Military

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    Actually, Panetta's statement won't change a thing over in Afghanistan. The right-wing thugs in Washington will keep Afghanistan as a U.S. satellite state similar to Poland to the Russians after WW2. The big U.S. companies plan to exploit Afghanistan's natural resources come what may!!!

    February 3, 2012 at 1:49 pm | Reply
  2. Hahahahahahahahahaha

    Hey Mr. Taliban, tally me dead terrorists. Daylight come and me wanna go home. Hahahahahahahahahaa

    February 3, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  3. ma.curd

    Maybe the earlier pullout date has something to do with budget cuts?On the other hand, twelve years of non stop fighting begs a lot of questions. If the Afghans really want to retake their country and defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,
    they'll find the path.

    February 3, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • USMC Forever

      The Afghans are trying to take their back, stupid! That's why they support the Taliban and not us, except for those who fight for money! We need to let the Afghans control their own future as we have no business trying to do it since we have no right to be there in the first place!!!

      February 3, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
  4. Hamid Atrafi

    afghans never asked the US to come to afghanistan in the first place and we 'll never ask them to stay either.
    This whole mess was created by the US and it needs to clean it. US has a moral duty to stay until the terrorists are defeated and afghanistan can stand on it own feet.

    February 4, 2012 at 12:36 am | Reply
    • Reality

      Really? The Afghans didn't ask us to be there, and won't ask us to stay...then we'll leave...We didn't create the mess you let your country turn into...remember the Buddas?...do you remember before the Taiban? How about before the Russians? Does anyone in your wretched little country remember you were a vital viable progressive country at one time? How about you people stand up and fix your own country? Why is it up to us to drag you kicking and screaming out of your caves and into the 21st century? We had our own civil war, and sacrificed our countrymen's lives for our freedom and liberty...give it a try, it might make you appreciate it!

      February 7, 2012 at 9:54 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    The American public wants to get out of Afghanistan. The U.S. forces on the ground feel differently as they see the threat and perils better than outsiders do. It's true that many Afghan soldiers have loyalty conflict. Most of them identify themselves primarily to their tribes. Moreover they have little regard for Karzai's government. It takes years of education for the Afghans to develop a sense of civic-mindedness.

    February 4, 2012 at 4:26 am | Reply
  6. RUSSIA=CHINA=IRAN=SYRIA-EVIL

    Russia and china interests , embassies and economic departments will be under attack in the middleast and any where in the world
    as they defend the killers in Syria and iran those evil must be dealt with on grass root level and must be hit hard before we hit bashar al asad of Syria, the resistant are working hard now to find the targets inside Russia and Russian targets inside middleast .,..wait and see ... bashar al asad killed 9345 almost 10,000 people already as his father before him who killed 30,000 in one week, those killers must be hanged, Saddam was hanged because he order to kill 40 spies, so al asad must be hanged 40 time over and over again

    February 4, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  7. TheLastIndependent

    So confusing. Its hard to figure things out when right is "wrong" and wrong is "right". Stablize the equalibum.

    February 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm | Reply
  8. Russ

    Note to Mr. O Hanlon: All wars are politicized. Panetta announces this during an election year? It's nothing other than political.

    February 5, 2012 at 2:26 am | Reply
  9. GAG AND MAGOG

    VOICE IN THE WIND AND FU WAHABI THOSE ARE SHIIA VILLAGE IDIOTS LIVE IN USA .
    most of those shiia thigs who lives here are terrorists help iran and hizboallah and send money to them those evil shiia kelab al majoos al safween worse than kelab al wahabeen .....middleast should run by non rlegion group. keep your faith in your home and in QUM AND THE EVIL CITY OF NAJAF AND KARBALA THE HOORE CITIES WHERE MOTAA ( LEGAL ADULTERY -ZENA IS PRACTICED ). LA3ANAKUM ALLAH YA KELAB YOU DESTROY ISLAM IRAN MUST END HIZBOALLAH MUST DIE AND END AHMEDI NEJADI THE CHIEF OF THE SHIIA MUST BE ELEMENATED. HE IS RETARD LIKE ALL THE SHIIE3A WHO MARRY THEIR COUSINS AND SISTERS, INBREED NATION OF EVIL ( GOG AND MAGOG)

    February 6, 2012 at 9:33 am | Reply
  10. ghaffar ali

    Pakistan has already made a decision which side to support in war. Pakistan will support Pakistan. We are fighting against extremism. AS the US public enjoys luxury in their homeland, we have faced the uglier side of reality, terror has hit us, we have lost many more lives than any other country. I think its unfair to Pakistanis if you hint that we can support extremists. I donot htink any chance of extremists coming to power in Pakistan exists. Here the general public is moderate Muslim majority, who are peace loving people.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Reply

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