Yesterday’s decision by General John R. Allen to separate NATO forces from the Afghans they train and mentor should be proof that the current advise and assist strategy is not working. The coming drawdown may be our best opportunity in years to shift to a winning strategy in Afghanistan. But this chance depends on Washington’s ability to stave off yet another bout of strategic narcolepsy where Afghanistan is concerned. The signs this month have not been good: State Department officials announced that their staff will retreat to four locations in Afghanistan. And, despite the now glaring problems with our ability to train and advise Afghan forces, the Pentagon
announced an early end to robust counterinsurgency operations in favor of simplistic buildup of Afghan National Security Forces.
The reason for war fatigue among our leaders is obvious. For the last ten years Coalition Forces have faced twin plagues: on the one hand, they have dealt with an Afghan problem set whose ever-increasing complexity outstripped their ability to understand it. And on the other, they have been hindered by a NATO bureaucracy that has ossified dramatically over time, despite some valiant efforts to fight it. Yesterday’s fratricide incident and the ones preceding it are a sign our troops are out of touch. Rushed troop creation and increased apathy toward Afghan government and security structures do not pave the right path out of Afghanistan. Drawing down is the solution, but with a more embedded, less-bureaucratized approach.
Contrary to popular opinion, an economy of force strategy is actually more logical for counterinsurgency than a costly, manpower-intensive one. For example, where partner forces are matched one-for-one with host nation forces - what ISAF calls “Shona ba shona,” or “shoulder to shoulder” - there is no incentive for Afghan soldiers to learn, or ISAF soldiers to teach, because they do not have to rely on each other for security. Forces are close enough to resent, but not close enough to understand each other. By contrast, a low partner-host ratio and longer training and mentoring period would more likely develop an Afghan military with the ability and desire to deter threats to the nation. Successful transition requires interdependence to build independence, and this may be seen by analogy in all aspects of the Afghan campaign.
A lower force ratio helps to surmount the gulf between allies in governance work, too, by allowing units to mentally detach from their parent institutions and take the part of those they advise. A return to more rustic counterinsurgency techniques, of the kind that Special Forces began to employ in 2010, lets forces correctly diagnose and address problems of governance. Maintaining such a locally embedded presence also provides the earliest intelligence of major problems in governance or security, and allows for rapid defusing of tense situations such as the recent Koran burnings.
All of these efforts are furthered by the reduction in friction from fewer units and echelons. ISAF's ability to sense the ground truth has eroded as staff numbers have swelled, witness the increasing importance of "battlefield circulation" visits as proof. Less bureaucracy allows the units remaining to make smarter, more adaptive decisions; for example, a unit operating in 2010 in a northern province with no other maneuver forces could keep track of needs, commitments and personalities. Similar units operating in crowded southern battle spaces often found de-confliction with fellow units to be time-consuming. In these areas locals took advantage of poor communication to play foreign interests off of each other.
The cost is the same, the manpower is the same; the difference lies in priorities. Walking the halls of the Pentagon today, I see a desire to be rid of the Afghan problem. Our leaders have started down a path to create at best the trappings of success, rushing to arm as many Afghans as possible, while hunkering down behind ever-taller walls. But we can and should use our enduring presence as an opportunity – to ally with the Afghan population, understand its changing politics, and act to support stable governance. If the fight was worth more than a decade’s investment of effort, surely it is worth a well-planned end: a drawdown in manpower without a drawdown in willpower.