Planning for the Long Haul in Afghanistan

by Tim Sullivan

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Walter Pincus reported on the Army’s plans to upgrade airbases and build a series of new special operations facilities across Afghanistan. The story suggests that the construction efforts, due to be completed late next year, represent an investment in the United States’ long-term posture in Afghanistan, and provide further indication that the U.S. mission in the country will continue well beyond the summer of 2011. This is an encouraging development.

The construction plans, focused as they are on enhancing access for special operations forces and expanding intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets (see here and here), also hint at the likely shift in the character of the Afghan mission as conventional U.S. forces are slowly drawn down between next summer and 2014 (the notional deadline set at last month’s Kabul conference for the final withdrawal of foreign troops).

As General Petraeus explained in a recent interview with Wired’s Danger Room, special operations forces currently serve as a critical kinetic component of the population-centric counterinsurgency campaign underway in Afghanistan, countering IED networks and pursuing high-value targets. But as U.S. forces begin to transfer greater responsibility to their Afghan counterparts, counterinsurgency operations slowly wind down, and American lines are increasingly thinned, special operations forces may well represent the primary remaining U.S. presence in the country.

Although a sizeable stability, training, and advisory force—similar to that which now remains in Iraq—would be a preferable alternative, the United States should, at the least, seek to maintain in Afghanistan a series of hubs from which elite forces could continue to conduct counterterrorism operations within the country and regionally. The upgraded bases described in the Post article would seem to fit the bill nicely.

Keeping in mind that this is all a long way off—and there’s a war to win in the meantime—it’s nonetheless good to see that the United States is setting the conditions to allow for a sustained presence in  the perennially troubled and strategically vital region.

(Photo: flickr/The U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Horace Murray)