A US soldier stands against the Afghan skyline after securing a combat outpost in Rajankala in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sergeant Francisco V. Govea II..
I haven’t had much time to comment on the Afghan “surge” and President Obama’s speech over the past 24 hours because I’ve been busy with interviews for radio (with my friends John Batchelor, and Brett Winterble of Covert Radio fame who subbed for Roger Hedgecock last night) and TV (Dawn News, NDTV 24×7, and NewsX), as well as working with The New York Times on a graphic of Taliban control/influence in Afghanistan. I wrote a short summary for NRO’s The Corner last night as well, which you can read here. There has been plenty of commentary on the speech and the strategy. Here is my brief $.02:
• The number of troops, 30,000 US soldiers and Marines plus an undetermined number of troops from NATO, is short of the 40,000 requested by General McChrystal, but close enough to what he requested to be acceptable to the military. My sources tell me this is about the maximum number that can be sustained given the current logistical constraints in Afghanistan anyway.
• As I briefly explained at The Corner, setting the time line for withdrawal is a big mistake. It encourages the Taliban, reinforces to the Pakistanis that we are seeking the exit, and sends the absolutely wrong message to the Afghan people.
• The message to the Afghan people was muddled at best. President Obama told them their security is paramount, but then said that the US goal of destroying al Qaeda takes precedence. This conflicting message, along with the signals that the US seeks the exit, will not sit well with Afghan fence sitters, and weakens our ability to demonstrate resolve.
• Currently there are not nearly enough Afghan forces for the US to transfer control by July 2011, when President Obama said the US drawdown will begin. Even if the training is accelerated, there won’t be enough Afghan troops, and the acceleration will sacrifice quality.
• Given the troop shortage, this indicates the US will depend on the tribal militias, called arbakai, to take control of areas. My sources tell me the program is having good success in Helmand and Kandahar, and in other areas as well. These units may be integrated into the police and Afghan National Army. A big question is whether this will be politically acceptable to the Karzai administration.
• The focus of the troops will be in the South and East. US/NATO Troops will largely be withdrawn from remote areas, then slowly be expanded outward to retake control of regions under Taliban control. This is reasonable from the military’s standpoint, but endangers anyone in those areas who cooperated with ISAF or the Afghan government.
• There will be offensive operations to hit the Taliban in their strongholds. Marja and Bahgram in Helmand will be main targets, as will Haqqani Network bases in the East (Paktia, Paktika, and Khost). People seem to forget that a major reason the Iraqi “surge” succeeded was that US troops paired up with Iraqi forces to immediately take on al Qaeda in Iraq and allied Sunni insurgent groups, and the Mahdi Army in the “Baghdad Belts,” the regions around the capital. Once these terror groups were smashed, there were sufficient Iraqi forces available to transition security. A similar effort is needed in Afghanistan, but it is unclear at the moment just how this will unfold.
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