The White House, it seems, has punted on the decision to double the size of the Afghan National Security Forces. The question of setting a target end-strength of 400,000 for the ANSF — as advocated by Gen. McChrystal, the Afghan defense minister, and others in Afghanistan’s military — will likely be taken up in late 2010, when the administration plans to hold a major review of the progress in Afghanistan.
At a pre-speech press conference on Tuesday, a senior administration official noted that the proposed 400,000 figure “doesn’t have much weight with us,” because it’s “more than we can accurately program for and predict the requirement for at this stage.”
There’s a certain irony — not to mention a strategic disconnect — in announcing a date by which the security mission in Afghanistan will be transferred to the Afghans, as the president did Tuesday, while at the same time preventing the country’s government from pursuing in earnest the force it has insisted it requires.
Yesterday, however, Gen. McChrystal indicated that the expanded 400,000 target remains a key, if distant, goal. “It will take at least four years by our computations to get to 400,000,” he explained, “so what I think we need to do is we need to develop as quickly as we can and that is what we are doing now.”
Meanwhile, the commander of the coalition training effort, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, appears to be laying the groundwork for a push toward the expanded target, if authorized. On Tuesday he told the AP, “Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it’s not a hard, firm, fixed number.”
It’s certainly reasonable to focus on short-term force-sizing goals — approaching the issue “in smaller increments,” as the administration official explained in the press conference Tuesday — in light of the ongoing ANSF recruiting and retention challenges. But there are good reasons to set the bar high. As retired general James Dubik noted recently, “There’s a significant psychological effect on the Taliban if we announce we’re going to build an Afghan security force of 400,000,” and “we’re going to miss that opportunity.”
And finally, as I’ve noted previously, the demand for Afghan forces among American commanders will only increase in the coming 18 months. As Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, commander of the Marines in Helmand province, explained today: “I got 10,000 Marines. I have 2,000 Afghans…I get asked all the time, ‘How many Afghans do you want?’ I want one to one. Every time one of our squads is going out, I want an Afghan squad with it.” That’s a high bar worth clearing.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Rumors are already flying about the cause of last Friday evening’s bombing of the Nevsky Express, a luxury train running between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. At about 9:35pm Moscow time, a bomb equivalent to about 15 pounds of TNT went off beneath the railroad tracks as the train passed over them. The conductor’s account suggests that the bomb went off under the locomotive, but because of the train’s speed (200 kilometers, or 125 miles, per hour), only the last three cars were derailed, and the last two, flipped. With 27 dead and roughly 100 injured, the November 27th event is the worst terrorist attack outside the North Caucasus that Russia has seen since the dual aircraft bombings in 2004. Evidence suggests that it could have been worse; the blast was placed at the spot where the Nevsky Express usually passes a train headed the opposite direction, but on Friday the Nevsky Express was running a minute late. A second, smaller explosion occurred on Saturday while rescuers and investigators were at the scene, injuring Russia’s top investigator, Alexander Bastrykin.
The most common theory, and the one that authorities seem to be focusing on, is that the bombing was planned by North Caucasian (read: Chechen) militants. They point to the accused mastermind of the August 2007 bombing of the same train, a former Russian soldier turned Islamic militant, Pavel Kosolapov. On August 13, 2007, a bomb equivalent to about 5 pounds of TNT went off on under a different section of the same track, just after the Nevsky Express passed over, injuring 60. Currently two Ingushetians are on trial for supplying the explosives and just last Wednesday, one of them reversed his denial and confessed. Kosolapov remains at large, and supposedly bears a striking resemblance to the Interior Ministry’s description of a suspect in Friday’s attack: “50 to 55 years old” and “wearing a red wig.” Some analysts point to the date of the event, the first day of Eid Al-Adha (known as Kurban Bayram in Russian), as further evidence that Kosolapov or other “Wahhabi” militants are to blame. One official at Russian Railways claimed that the double bombing is typical of North Caucasian insurgents, while other commentators immediately connected the small explosion under a passing train in Dagestan on Monday to Friday’s bombing.
Some further thoughts from last night, originally posted at NRO:
Bottom line up front: Stanley McChrystal gets 30,000 more U.S. troops – with the prospect of at least a few thousand more from allies — and a couple of campaign seasons to make a difference. That is a very good thing, and well worth suffering through the blame-it-on-Bush introduction, the subsequent nuclear-free-one-worldism and such. Conservatives who expect more from Barack Obama will forever be disappointed.
Nor should conservatives get overly excited about the 18-month timeline, at least yet. Beginning to reduce troops in the summer of 2011 is within the bounds of good strategic sense, assuming we make good use of the time until then. Nor is it really the case that Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar will take great succor from the timeline; they already think they’ll outlast us. It will hurt them to lose what they see as the gains they’ve scored, not just this year but over the past three years, at great effort.
There were two other notably good bits. One, the war on Afghan President Hamid Karzai seems to be over. The rhetoric about his rule as being consistent with Afghan law is a good start to the needed rehabilitation process. Winning the war will be the best anti-corruption measure. Second, the president’s concluding recognition of the U.S. role in the world sounded a lot like good old American exceptionalism. Welcome to the American tradition, Mr. President.
What would the boys over in the Quetta shura have made of Barack Obama’s West Point speech?
All told, I think they’d be a little down. Sure, they’d take some consolation in the start-to-withdraw timeline that’s supposed to begin in the summer of 2011. And they might nod their heads and think, “Ah, America…truly a weak horse!” at the nuclear-free and economic-crisis rhetoric, but that’s more a measure of how deeply entrenched their misunderstanding of the United States is. Their main thought would probably be: “McChrystal has 30,000 more rifles. What we’ve spent the last three years working toward is at risk. We must wait to return to Kandahar. Let us hope to live to see the day.” (Foreigners always speak English like that.)
In sum, the president will change the enemy’s battlefield calculus. This won’t be the decisive moment, but it can set the stage for big things, particularly in 2011. One of the reasons to anticipate the coming congressional testimony from McChrystal and others is that they will not only report on their plans for the future, but they will update our understanding of what’s been happening this year. There’s been a lot more fighting in recent months than there has almost since the 2001 invasion, particularly in the Taliban strongholds of Helmand and Kandahar provinces. As was the case in regard to Iraq, Washington’s grasp of the tactical situation is probably about six months behind battlefield realities in Afghanistan.
We shouldn’t worry too much about Taliban morale, but at least it’s a diversion from the domestic political deconstruction — how will the Democratic Left respond? Will Obama get more support from Republicans than his own base? — that passes for strategic wisdom in Washington.
Tom Donnelly is director of the Center for Defense Studies.
In anticipation of the president’s remarks this evening and the debate which will inevitably follow, AEI resident scholar Frederick W. Kagan makes the following reading recommendation:
I want to call to your attention an outstanding report on Kandahar published by ISW’s Carl Forsberg. Kandahar will be the Baghdad of the upcoming campaign. It is also a microcosm of the problems we face in Afghanistan, and Carl nails all the inter-connections between tribal rivalries, government predation, ANSF limitations, allied contributions, and, above all, the relationship between inadequate numbers of troops and the failure of counter-insurgency. It also describes in detail the Taliban’s plans, strategies, methods of operation, and tactics, as well as the nature of Taliban governance. If you can find the time to make yourself familiar with the details, you will be able to dominate most of the upcoming debates through sheer knowledge and understanding of the most important part of this fight. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.
The Lowy Institute for International Policy, the fine Australian think tank, has just released its “China Poll 2009.” Funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation, directed by Fergus Hanson and Andrew Shearer, and carried out this past fall, the poll tracks Chinese attitudes toward security matters and opinions about other countries.
Among the highlights of the poll are that half of the Chinese surveyed perceived the United States as a threat to China’s security and nearly half see Japan similarly. In contrast, but hardly a surprise, far fewer Chinese saw Russia or North Korea as a problem. In the case of Russia, over 70% saw it as no threat at all, while over 80% thought the same about North Korea. As for why the Chinese saw the U.S. as a threat, more than 75% think that America is out to curtail China’s growing global influence and/or seek to support “separatist” elements within China. The bottom line: the Chinese are quite clear, at least in their own minds, that the major democracies in their sphere are not likely to be their friends and will in fact pose a problem to their future ambitions. Interestingly, the poll also shows the Chinese overwhelmingly think the U.S. is good place in which to be educated, with more than a third saying that it was the best place, with much smaller numbers favoring Great Britain, Singapore, Australia and Canada.
This finding on schooling, when combined with the polling data on Chinese threat perceptions, can’t help but remind one of German love-hate attitude toward the British in the late 1800s and early part of the 20th Century. Germans were quite fond of virtually everything British but equally convinced that London would try and deny a rising Germany its place on the world stage. History of course doesn’t have to repeat itself, but the Lowy Institute’s poll is a good reminder that, when it comes to the psychology of a rising power, the fact that many Chinese may like Harry Potter, Coca-Cola, and Armani is no guarantee there will be smooth sailing ahead.
PS: Although the polling data is interesting for what it has to say about Chinese views on the world at large, it is also interesting in that “the threats” Chinese are most worried about are internal matters-such as the environment and food shortages. While this does not overturn the fact that the Chinese have ambitions to be a great power, it is also a reminder that it might be, to borrow from Susan Shirk, “a fragile” one. Whether this makes the rise of China more or less problematic is a debate worth having.
Gary Schmitt is director of AEI’s program on advanced strategic studies.
While most of the world waits to hear President Obama’s decision on Afghanistan, Japanese remain increasingly focused on the non-resolution of the Futenma Marine Air Station relocation dispute between Tokyo and Washington. As expected, the issue was politely sidelined during President Obama’s trip to Japan last month, but since then, the U.S. has slowly been ratcheting up the pressure on Japan to swiftly conclude a “review” of the 2006 agreement and move forward on implementing it.
The main mechanism for addressing the problem is a high-level working group headed by Assistant Secretary of Defense Chip Gregson on the U.S. side, meeting with Director General of the Defense Policy Bureau Nobushige Takamizawa and Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General of North American Affairs Kazuyoshi Umemoto. Gregson and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer landed in Tokyo the week after Obama’s visit to inaugurate the meetings, and Takamizawa and Umemoto made a one-day trip to Washington last week to follow up.
This week, however, U.S. Ambassador John Roos visited ground zero of the dispute, meeting with the governor of Okinawa and repeating the message that the move of the Marines’ station to a new facility at Camp Schwab is the “best and only viable option.” This very public visit was paired with one by the new commander of Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, who met with Japanese Foreign Minister Okada on Monday to reiterate that solving the Futenma crisis is the key to U.S. force realignment in Japan.
Much is made of the complexities of the war in Afghanistan, though at times the fog of war seems to increase with either distance from Kabul or proximity to Washington; it can be hard to tell which is the cause.
Thus Greg Scoblete at Real Clear World critiques my post here, in which I argued that President Obama needed to communicate determination tonight when he explains his decision on the road forward in Afghanistan. “The question of resolve is a red herring,” believes Scoblete. Indeed, “it is impossible to signal ‘resolve’ when it comes to a mission that is as ambiguous as Afghanistan has become.”
It may prove difficult for this president, but that is in part because his very public agonizing over this decision has, as I argued, inevitably raised the question. But Americans tend to want to see their leaders as determined decision-makers (and, to be pedantic, “determination,” used with some precision, per Clausewitz, was the term I used). So if the president signals anything that can be interpreted as determination, I suspect it will be warmly welcomed as such, not least by the Loyal Opposition. It will be easily recognized and equally welcomed by most Afghans, too.
The idea that our president doesn’t speak for us in wartime — that the clamor of democratic debate makes it too hard for the world to hear America clearly — is the reddest herring of all. Scoblete is correct that the Taliban and other enemies will amplify dissent. But no president is just “one man,” one among many. That’s especially true in times of war and — or so his supporters will tell you — particularly true of Barack Obama.
In fact, one of the Changes We’ve Been Waiting For is a Democratic president who believes that there are wars of necessity. President Obama’s voice, particularly as part of a chorus that would include Defense Secretary Gates, Secretary of State Clinton and generals Petraeus and McChrystal, would be persuasive and powerful indeed. Nor must he call for conscription or putting the economy on a war footing — it has become an antiwar trope to blow the cost of a renewed commitment in Afghanistan out of all proportion; even allowing the highest cost estimate, it’s less than 15 percent of either the cost of the financial bail-out or the “stimulus” bill — just explain what’s at stake and that he thinks we can win.
It’s hard, but simple. I think there’s a Clausewitz quote for that, too.
9,000 Marines will be headed to southern Helmand province, only days after President Obama’s Afghan address. The Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reports that the additional Marines will double the size of the U.S. force in Helmand. Their mission? Seize Helmand’s insurgent safe-haven in Marjeh, just 25 kilometers west of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.
Marjeh has been an insurgent stronghold for last several years. The town of Marjeh is part of Nad Ali district, inhabited by approximately 50,000 residents in the heart of Helmand’s poppy country. The town provides insurgents with a sanctuary to store weapons, refine and transit opium, build IEDs and plan attacks to the north and south. It is strategically located just west of the provincial capital and south of the centrally located city of Gereshk on Afghanistan’s only highway and is a key route for coalition logistics. The insurgents based in and around Marjeh have targeted the highway and coalition troops in and around Lashkar Gah. In the past two years, insurgents from Marjeh launched two large-scale assaults that threatened to overrun the provincial capital.
During opium harvests in years past, the insurgents in-and-around Marjeh were welcomed by the local population to protect their crops from Afghan government-led eradication efforts. In exchange for their services, the local population was willing to accept Taliban shadow governance structures, taxation, and an insurgent-dominated bazaar (Loy Charahi) exploited for a host of enemy operations.
Niether of the coalition’s summer operations in Helmand targeted Marjeh. In fact, the British-led Operation Panther’s Claw focused on non-critical terrain kilometers to the north while the influx of Marines targeted the Taliban’s lines of supply and communications running the length of the southern stretch of the Helmand River. They simply didn’t have enough resources to add Marjeh to their target list. As a result, the majority of Helmand’s Taliban fled both offensives and reconsolidated their positions in Marjeh. From there, insurgents have continually harassed British and U.S. Marines to the north and south. The top Marine in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson has been licking his chops for some time, waiting to tackle what he termed a “cancer in Helmand.”