Editor'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 But the statement was not actually withdrawn and it does represent something of a change.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.