Afghanistan and Steady Presidential Nerves

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Quite possibly the best thing happening with Afghanistan right now is President Obama’s steady nerves and careful deliberation on what is the best and correct course of action for America to take.

Advocates of sending more troops to Afghanistan have been searching for a winning rationale to sell an escalation to the public. Despite public opinion polls saying support for the war is disappearing, more U.S. troops for Afghanistan seemed like a foregone conclusion.

Up until yesterday when five British troops were killed by an Afghan policeman, one of the more persuasive arguments has been that the West needs to train more Afghan soldiers so the Afghans can take charge of their country’s own security.

Now with five soldiers dead, The Guardian reports that commanders in Afghanistan fear Taliban infiltration as troops hunt for the assassin.

British and Afghan commanders were last night undertaking an urgent investigation into the killing of five British soldiers amid concerns that the Taliban may have infiltrated the police force in Helmand. The troops were killed by a local police officer who opened fire as they sat drinking tea and fled.

The deaths prompted deep soul searching in Whitehall because Gordon Brown has put the training by the British army of a rapidly expanded Afghan security force at the heart of his exit strategy from Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Brown may have training more Afghans at the heart of his exit strategy, but President Obama does not… yet.

Brown told Parliament that the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the attack. The Independent reports the British troops were killed by the enemy within. So, the Taliban either had an operative in the Afghan police force or they were able to turn a policeman against the occupational force.

In the latest incident, the killer, named as Gulbuddin, had been a policeman for around two and half years. It was not known last night what kind of vetting he had received, if any, when he joined the force at Musa Qala, which has changed hands a number of times between the Taliban and British forces.

No wonder the British government is having a rethink. Training more Afghans without knowing who is being trained and which side they are on would be a colossal, Bush league mistake.

It gets worse. Not only does it turn out the West has trained a policeman who was actually a Taliban operatives, but the West is funding the Taliban too. An investigation by GlobalPost found that “the Taliban takes a percentage of the billions of dollars in aid from U.S. and other international coalition members that goes to large organizations and their subcontractors for development projects, in exchange for protection in remote areas controlled by the insurgency.”



Just two months ago, training more Afghan troops was being put forward as the answer to our Afghanistan problem.

The argument was suggested in early September by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Levin, according to the NY Times, said more Afghan troops needed to be trained before the U.S. committed any more combat troops there.

The leading Senate Democrat on military matters said Thursday that he was against sending more American combat troops to Afghanistan until the United States speeded up the training and equipping of more Afghan security forces…

“I just think we should hold off on a commitment to send more combat troops until these additional steps to strengthen the Afghan security forces are put in motion,” he said.

Mr. Levin, who returned from a trip to Afghanistan just last week, said that the Afghan national army should be increased to 240,000 troops by 2012 from a current goal of 134,000 by next year, and that Afghan national police forces should grow to 160,000 officers from 96,800 in the same period.

Soon after, NATO and U.S. military leaders began stressing the training role of the Afghan war. In early October, the NY Times reported the NATO Secretary General explained the details of its Afghan training mission.

The move by NATO, which said in April that it would take on such a role but did not provide details until now, is aimed at “transferring the lead responsibility for security to the Afghans themselves,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO’s new secretary general, said in an interview at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Monday. “The training mission is absolutely crucial.”

Rasmussen was followed up by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan to bring ‘victory’ to Afghanistan where training more Afghan soldiers is key. In a piece for the NY Times Magazine, Dexter Filkins wrote of Stanley McChrystal’s Long War, where –

The softer side of McChrystal’s strategy has two main thrusts: training Afghan soldiers and police and persuading insurgents to change sides. It is here where the best chances of long-term success in Afghanistan may lie.

The first of these is a vast, expensive and painstaking project. In the ninth year of the war, Afghan forces are neither large nor able enough to take over for NATO. The Afghan Army has about 85,000 soldiers, and the police force has about 80,000 men. McChrystal wants to boost the size of the army to about 240,000 and the police to 160,000. “I think we can do it,” he told me.

By amazing coincidence, Sen. Levin and Gen. McChrystal target size for the Afghan force are quite similar. McChrystal was determined to get more soldiers for his command. By another amazing coincidence, McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment was leaked to the Washington Post on September 21, 2009 where they ran the Bob Woodward story as “McChrystal: More Forces or ‘Mission Failure’“.

At the time, McClatchy reported President Obama was “caught in a vise” over sending more troops or not to Afghanistan.

He can escalate an unpopular and open-ended war and risk a backlash from his liberal base or refuse his commanders and risk being blamed for a military loss that could tar him and his party as weak on national security.

Note the trotting out of the tired, old “weak on national security” canard to show what is perceived to be at stake for Obama.

The pressure on Obama to make a snap decision increased over the next two weeks with McChrystal saying publicly that not increasing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would be “short-sighted”. To which a CS Monitor asked if the general’s remarks were “insightful or sedition?

Following the ‘leak’ of McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment and a a week after the general’s public remark concerning White House options, Defense War Secretary Robert Gates made remarks that seem to be a rebuke of McChrystal. McClatchy reported Gates to Army: We’ll follow Obama’s orders on Afghanistan. “Gates said that military and civilian advisors should provide ‘our best advice to the president candidly — but privately.'”

A month ago, it looked like the U.S. troop escalation and Afghan training push was going to sway over the president’s thinking. But, I think Obama did something interesting. Instead of reacting immediately to appear decisive and in command, he has continued a careful assessment of the situation in Afghanistan.

If Obama had made a snap decision like George W. Bush did, then today the president’s exit strategy would depend on training more Afghan troops that may or may not turn out to be Taliban sleeper agents waiting for the opportunity to kill Americans or lead them into deadly traps.

If Obama was taking the advice of a vice president like Dick Cheney, then he’d be scolded for “dithering” when he wanted to look at the situation more carefully. Instead of Obama is given sober advice from Vice President Biden where, as the NY Times states he is “strongest voice against further escalation of American forces there and the leading doubter of the president’s strategy.”

If Americans had elected Sen. John McCain to the presidency last year, then there is no doubt that McCain would have acted just like Bush. Just last week, the AP reported that McCain exhorts Obama to make Afghan decision now.

McCain is exhorting President Barack Obama to make a decision quickly on sending additional troops to Afghanistan, saying U.S allies are nervous and military commanders are frustrated.

McCain said in a nationally broadcast interview Wednesday that the war policy in Afghanistan “has been reviewed time and again” and that it’s now time to act.

Obama called their bluff.

It seems so simple now, but all he did to slow the rush to war was by being deliberative and asking the same basic question the CS Monitor asked a month ago: is the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan working?

“President Obama has defined the mission in Afghanistan as rooting out Al Qaeda and preventing a return of the Taliban to power”, but “nowhere in McChrystal’s memo did the words “Al Qaeda” appear. The definition of what it means to defeat Al Qaeda had expanded – from disrupting, capturing, or killing its operatives to creating conditions that wouldn’t allow their return.”

McChrystal and his backers had transformed the mission outlined by the president into an Afghan troop training mission and, like the Bush administration, lost sight of al Qaeda. They may have forgotten too that already earlier this year, Obama ordered 17,700 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan and the situation did not improve. Instead, Afghanistan has become more dangerous.

Adding more troops and trainers made no positive difference. The really maddening part is, this is not the first time this sort of attack from within has happened in Afghanistan. The Independent article noted:

The massacre was the latest in a series of attacks on Western troops and officials involving the Afghan police. Four weeks ago a policeman in Wardak province opened fire on American soldiers out on patrol, killing two of them before fleeing. Last year, over a period of less than a month, Afghan police twice attacked US forces, killing two soldiers and wounding three others. Last week men in police uniforms forced their way into a guest house in Kabul and murdered five UN election workers. They were not members of the force, but had police-issue radio transmitters and detailed information on the target of their attack, which, say investigators, could only have come from official sources.

Does anyone advocating training more Afghan troops really know whom we are training and where do their allegiances hold?

Just training more Afghans has not worked. A strategy like McChrystal’s where carrying out the same approach we tried in the past and expecting a different result this time around is madness.

Afghanistan warrants a deliberative approach and that is precisely what Obama and Biden are taking. Obama can still make the right decision. Thankfully we voted the right men into power a year ago today.


Cross-posted from Daily Kos.



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  1. Came down to a choice between two men: Obama and McCain. I still think I made the right choice by voting for Obama. McCain would have been a dangerous president.

  2. Although I gotta say I’m not quite as sanguine about the President’s leadership in Afghanistan as you are.

    At what point does careful deliberateness become simple paralysis?  

    Frankly, I’m doubtful that we will see any clear strategic guidance out of the White House in the next year. More likely, our inertia-worshiping Administration will continue to muddle through with the troops they have and try to make up the difference with more Predator strikes (the essence the Biden non-plan).

    Of course, the increase in drone strikes will only accelerate the disintegration of the Pakistani Government, but hey, let’s just cross that nuclear bridge when it blows up underneath us, shall we?

    And sure, resurrecting basic diplomatic niceties may paper over a few of the more egregious child-slaughtering atrocities, but John Kerry boring for his country and Hillary giving Knute Rocknes to the ISI only goes so far.

    After 8 years of war in that Godforsaken meatgrinder, the only real decision to be made is how fast can we get our brave troops out of there.  

    Any other action is simply an excuse not to make the only decision that makes any sense.  

    • Edger on November 6, 2009 at 02:51

    to indicate that he wants out?

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