Small Wars Journal

Joint Strategic Assessment Team II

Sean Naylor of Army Times reports that General David Petraeus is planning to form a team of under 100 experts to conduct a top-to-bottom strategic assessment of US Central Command's area of responsibility.

Petraeus tapped Col. (P) H.R. McMaster to lead the Joint Strategic Assessment Team, or JSAT, according to multiple sources.

McMaster is widely regarded as one of the Army's most capable officers. He is the author of Dereliction of Duty, an examination of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's performance during the Vietnam War, and he commanded the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar in western Iraq, a deployment that came to be seen as a model of how to conduct counterinsurgency at the local level.

The team will include people from government, the military and academia.

Petraeus takes charge at CentCom on Oct. 31 and the JSAT will begin its work immediately thereafter.

Sources said the work would likely be completed in February.

General Petraeus, along with Ambassador Ryan Crocker, utilized a JSAT in 2007 that contributed much to the creation of the classified Joint Campaign Plan for Iraq. Among other recommendations the JSAT provided the framework for a new population-centric counterinsurgency strategy intended to provide a bridge for the Iraqi government and security forces to eventual handover of day to day political and security functions.

Michael Gordon of the New York Times and Ann Scott Tyson of the Washington Post reported on JSAT efforts in US Is Seen in Iraq Until at Least '09 and New Strategy for War Stresses Iraqi Politics, respectively.

The overarching aim of the plan, which sets goals for the end of this year and the end of 2008, is more political than military: to negotiate settlements between warring factions in Iraq from the national level down to the local level. In essence, it is as much about the political deals needed to defuse a civil war as about the military operations aimed at quelling a complex insurgency, said officials with knowledge of the plan.

The groundwork for the campaign plan was laid out in an assessment formulated by Petraeus's senior counterinsurgency adviser, David J. Kilcullen, with about 20 military officers, State Department officials and other experts in Baghdad known as the Joint Strategic Assessment Team. Their report, finished last month, was approved by Petraeus and Crocker as the basis of a formal campaign plan that will assign specific tasks for military commands and civilian agencies in Iraq.

The plan anticipates keeping US troop levels elevated into next year but also intends to significantly increase the size of the 144,000-strong Iraqi army, considered one of the more reliable institutions in the country and without which a US withdrawal would spell chaos. "You will have to do something about the sucking noise when we leave," said a US officer familiar with the plan.

The plan has three pillars to be carried out simultaneously -- in contrast to the prior sequential strategy of "clear, hold and build." One shifts the immediate emphasis of military operations away from transitioning to Iraqi security forces -- the primary focus under the former top US commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr. -- toward protecting Iraq's population in trouble areas, a central objective of the troop increase that President Bush announced in January.

"The revised counterinsurgency approach we're taking now really focuses on protecting those people 24/7 . . . and that competent non-sectarian institutions take the baton from us," said Kilcullen, offering an overview of the campaign plan.

With mounting pressure to "get Afghanistan under control" - and many pundits and politicians advocating an Iraq-like "surge" of US and NATO troops into that country - the formation of a Central Command JSAT is very good news. A critical counterinsurgency lesson learned (and at times unlearned) is one size does not fit all and while a new strategy may include a substantial increase in ground combat forces circumstances warrant a comprehensive approach based on factors peculiar to Afghanistan.

Moreover, JSAT recommendations for Afghanistan must be an integral part of a regional strategy that includes Pakistan and India - as Dr. T.X. Hammes rightly argues in his recent Small Wars Journal blog post - The Good War?

Even worse, to date, the candidates are discussing only Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan or India. Yet both these Southwest Asian nations are much more critical to the United States future than Afghanistan. Neither candidate has questioned the wisdom of bombing, and likely destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of almost 170 million people, in order to help our security efforts in Afghanistan. Nor has there been a discussion whether dedicating more resources to Afghanistan is more effective than dedicating different but equivalent resources to support Pakistan. This is despite the fact that 80% of the supplies for the forces we have in Afghanistan come by road directly through one of the least stable parts of Pakistan. In short, if Pakistan destabilizes we probably lose in Afghanistan -- the converse is not true.

Yet, our position in Afghanistan appears to be largely shaping our policy toward Pakistan. And our actions in Pakistan inevitably have a major impact on our relationship with India -- a rising nation destined to be the most important of the three.

We entered Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda's operating forces and eliminate its training bases. We successfully eliminated the bases and hurt Al Qaeda badly. One reason often given for our presence in Afghanistan is that we must stabilize it as a nation so that Al Qaeda can never use it as a terrorist base again. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda has moved its forces and its bases into Pakistan. The subsequent conflict inside Pakistan is contributing to increasing instability in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and has greatly increased the strain on the Pakistani government.

Before we rush more troops into Afghanistan, we must answer basic questions about our strategy for the region and how our efforts in Afghanistan support that strategy. Good tactics and more troops are not a substitute for a strategy -- and in fact can significantly raise the cost of a bad strategy.

While not mentioned by T.X., Iran shares a border and long history with Afghanistan and if recent reporting holds true is increasingly taking an active role in supporting the Taliban.

For additional background on the Iraq JSAT and the issues facing decision-makers in 2007 see The New Yorker's The General's Dilemma by Steve Coll, Newsweek Magazine's Brainiac Brigade by Babak Dehghanpisheh and John Barry, and Dave Kilcullen's posts here at Small Wars Journal (scroll down to 2007 entries).