June 6, 2011

Heated Afghan Summer: The Battle for July Withdrawals


Both sides are marshaling their forces, plotting their logistics and sizing up the opposition. Battle has already been joined, each side skirmishing with the other to improve their field position. Far from Afghanistan’s lush valleys, jagged peaks and a prickly Taliban insurgency, the White House and Pentagon are about to enter a test of strength over who truly runs America’s “civilian” military.

On Monday President Barack Obama convenes what may be his final national security meeting before deciding on July’s troop withdrawals. His Defense Secretary couldn’t wait.

The normally coy Robert Gates launched a preemptive blow on Sunday when he briefed the “Raider” Brigade in Kandahar. Billed as his farewell tour, Gates announced a bullish update on the war’s progress and staked out his position around the hotly-contested July withdrawal. After gratuitous warnings of “fragile gains," the Secretary hailed NATO advances in Kandahar province as “absolutely amazing. You have ejected the Taliban from their home territory.”

The most “hesitant” supporter of Obama’s surge, according to the U.S. media, now finds himself leading the assault against his boss. Gates’s remarks were soon countered by a New York Times report of a “steeper pullout,” which drew a clear battle line between the White House and Pentagon. With Osama bin Laden dead, Afghan President Hamid Karzai at odds with Washington and America’s economy refusing to heal properly, supporters of a “limited” war in Afghanistan are now trying to open a political exit for 2012.

Although they call these factors “new strategic considerations,” they also want to begin the draw-down before campaign season ends.

“These new considerations... are combining to create a counterweight to an approach favored by the departing secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, and top military commanders in the field,” says The Times. “They want gradual cuts that would keep American forces at a much higher combat strength well into next year, senior administration officials said.”

"I'd try to maximize my combat capability as long as this process goes on, Gates added. "That's a no-brainer."

The matter is set to be “debated intensely over the next two weeks,” capped by a national address from Obama later this month. However not much will change on Afghanistan’s ground during this time; the Taliban can still field between 15,000-20,000 fighters and local governance won't spring from the ground. More than 5,000 troops is militarily unrealistic, and removing a third of Obama's surge will facilitate the Taliban’s immediate expansion. Military gains will erode whatever negotiating leverage has been built up, creating the impression of defeat.

A decision is already locked in - the outcome depends on who outwits and out-muscles the other.

Back in Afghanistan Gates called for “support troops” to withdraw first, leaving “the shooters” for last. This plan accords with previous reports, and would see 1,000-3,000 troops exit along with a 1,500-member MEU that Gates deployed in 2010. No figures are given on the White House’s side, but 5,000 marks a plausible ceiling while also providing a juicy number for headlines. This force would also be broken down between combat and support troops.

Only so many non-combat troops can be withdrawn without negatively affecting those in the field.

Gates and General Davis Petraeus are supposedly facing down a clique headed by Vice President Joe Biden. Rather than a leader, Biden appears to be a pawn of those Democrats who want out of Afghanistan. He’s also likely speaking for Obama himself in an attempt to conceal his position, so Biden doesn't represent Gates’s real target. Nevertheless, as Obama's face, he appears to stand little chance of overcoming the Pentagon. Conversely, Gates is unlikely to isolate himself and will attempt to find a favorable “middle ground” that can save Obama’s credibility.

“No one wants to give up the gains that have been won at such a hard cost, and nobody wants to give our allies the excuse to run for the exits,” Gates told the Army’s 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Walton. “I have confidence that we’ll strike the right balance.”

In reality the Secretary is playing the “safety of the troops” card. Valid as this concern is, Gates has laid the responsibility on Obama’s desk and dared him to blink. Gates supported a beef-up surge from the beginning, contrary to media speculation, but didn’t want to challenge Obama’s authority. He even promised to stick to the 18-month time-line in a final Oval Office briefing, knowing full well that Petraeus was aiming for December 2011 rather than July.

One major dilemma of a military-centric strategy is undermining the very attempt to hold Taliban territory. “Shooters” aren't the ideal people to work with locals in developing governance, yet Gates appears ready to further concentrate on body counts. Unfortunately “Biden’s way” presents an equally disturbing outcome. Rather than deescalate the war as part of the withdrawal, Democrats also favor an increase in drone operations in Afghanistan. Current CIA head Leon Panetta, Obama’s future Defense Secretary, is another proponent of drone-centric warfare, contrary to counterinsurgency.

To many bin Laden's death vindicated quick counter-terrorism over prolonged COIN.

However those believing an “off-shore” strategy will accomplish anything more than killing Taliban and alienating Afghans could be gravely mistaken. Coupled with reduced forces in the field, Karzai’s resistance to night-raids and air-strikes, pervasive corruption and economic blight, and the “offshore theory” becomes a recipe for COIN disaster. U.S. Marine Corps Major General John Toolan warned, “The biggest fear for the Afghans is that we’ll leave and leave them cold without development projects.”

Gates and Biden’s strategies appear to be headed in a similar direction. Said Gates, "First of all it has to be acknowledged that these drones have a significant role in taking a lot of Taliban leaders, trainers off the table. The question really then becomes the role of the drones, our relationship with Pakistan and how this all fits together."

Both the Secretary and NYT also claim that the latest strategy review “is about far more than how many troops to take out in July.” A separate timetable will reportedly announce the departure of all foreign troops by 2014, now standing at about 130,000. Although politically appealing, such a time-line doesn’t appear to be any more realistic than a “steep” July withdrawal. “Looking past” this summer also sounds eerily similar to previous chatter in 2010, when Pentagon officials thought they succeeded in pushing Americans “past 2011.”

“It’s really not so much about where you start, but what the next year and a half to two years looks like,” Gates said. “We have to look at it strategically like that and not just focus on the front end of this and whatever number gets announced in July.”

Gates is the leading U.S. advocate of a residual force after 2014. While Karzai and many Afghans want foreign troops gone by then, the Secretary told U.S. troops in March, "Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that... My sense is, they (Afghan officials) are interested in having us do that."

U.S. officials love to hype the Taliban’s military setbacks and the political divisions triggered within its ranks. Less mentioned is the fact that these same divisions exist within the White House and Pentagon. Gates’s confidence belies the tension building between these forces. Soon he will receive a final chance to prove who’s stronger.

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