Afghanistan, now and then

As the new year begins, the Afghanistan surge is underway. Army brigades and Marine regiments have been alerted to deploy, and their lead elements are on the move.

Even in these early stages, it is not too soon to begin to think about how this year will end in Afghanistan. Key military and civilian national security officials have said that this December, they will give President Obama an assessment of the surge and make recommendations about how it should proceed.

Those of us who were in Iraq for the surge of 2007 and who have fought in Afghanistan can pretty much predict how the war in the latter nation will unfold.

First, given the challenge of deploying and sustaining our troops in an incredibly difficult and underdeveloped region, the troop buildup probably will take most of the year to complete. Initially, as new units fan out into areas where no coalition forces have operated before -- especially in the largely Pashtun provinces in the south and east -- the stark prediction of senior U.S. military commanders will no doubt be fulfilled: U.S. casualties will spike until soldiers and their leaders become accustomed to the new terrain and the enemy that has operated at will there.

But as our forces adapt, they will fight with increasing effectiveness, and more and more the insurgents probably will choose not to accept battle, deciding instead to move to new havens as they are able to identify them, or simply to go to ground -- that is, melt into the masses of their Pashtun countrymen. Contacts with the enemy are likely to decline, which means U.S. and coalition casualties will decrease.


It is also likely that the number of reported Afghan civilian casualties will decrease. U.S. commanders will make protecting the population from insurgent attacks a high priority, and they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that civilian casualties caused by coalition strikes are kept to a minimum. Terrorist attacks in U.S.-controlled areas will still occur, but they will decrease.

There will be modest improvements in the effort to build up the Afghan government and its security forces. The Afghan National Army and police forces will grow, but probably not at the pace that would meet the U.S. goal of 400,000 by 2013. The readiness and capabilities of these forces will be open to some question, but it is very likely that Afghans will be in the lead in military operations in several of the less violent provinces of the north and west.

At the national level, although security operations will have bought some breathing room for the Karzai government to make necessary reforms, there will probably be little improvement in its effectiveness and minimal progress in fighting corruption. Economic improvement at the national level will be virtually indiscernible, but coalition reconstruction teams will make progress with local governments and small businesses and farms.

The assessment of the president’s advisors in December will almost certainly reflect cautious optimism about progress made, but with warnings that it is tenuous: The Taliban will still be able to operate; the Afghan security forces will be too few in number and mostly unable to go it alone; the reach of the government in Kabul into the provinces will be limited.

Given the complex nature of military operations in the region, Obama will need to make decisions in December based on these conditions in order to affect the future of the surge beyond July 2011. He should be aware now that those who have advocated a counterinsurgency strategy will argue that the buildup must be continued and the force size sustained until the Taliban is defeated, a stable security environment managed by Afghan army and the police forces is achieved, and government institutions are established that are viable alternatives to what the Taliban can offer.

But the correct lens through which Obama views the conditions in Afghanistan should be the clearly defined and articulated principles that he included in his speech at West Point in December. He called for an approach that is tightly focused on Al Qaeda -- to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” its fighters in the region. To support that “overarching goal,” he called for a military strategy to break the momentum that the Taliban currently enjoys and a civilian strategy to “strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan’s security forces and government, so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future.”

It is not too early to begin a critical examination of what success should look like, measured against the objectives the president identified in his address. Is it necessary to “defeat” the Taliban in order to break its momentum, or might containing the spread of its influence be enough? How far does the reach of the Afghan government need to extend before it can be declared ready to take the “lead responsibility for Afghanistan’s future”? What provinces or regions must be controlled or governed, and where might it be acceptable to establish a looser form of administration? Most fundamental, is it necessary to win a counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan -- incurring all the costs that such a victory might entail -- in order to prevent Al Qaeda from accomplishing its purposes in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Addressing these questions now is not only sound from a strategic standpoint, it also makes sense domestically. Complicating the decisions to be made in December will be the political dynamics set in motion by the November elections, which will no doubt bring (or return) to Congress supporters of the war who will see progress and the need to finish the job, and detractors who argue that this progress is good enough.

Much to his credit, the president has shown a proclivity to ask the hard questions. He did so before he ordered the surge. He must do so again in December, when he will make decisions about its future, and the conditions for success in that process must be considered as the new year begins.

Eric T. Olson was commander

of the Combined Joint Task Force in Afghanistan in 2004-05, and deputy director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office in 2006-07.