Armed Conflicts, Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

U.S.: Veteran Army Officer Urges Afghan Troop Drawdown

Gareth Porter*

WASHINGTON, Oct 15 2009 (IPS) - A veteran Army officer who has served in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars warns in an analysis now circulating in Washington that the counterinsurgency strategy urged by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is likely to strengthen the Afghan insurgency, and calls for withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. combat forces from the country over 18 months.

In a 63-page paper representing his personal views, but reflecting conversations with other officers who have served in Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis argues that it is already too late for U.S. forces to defeat the insurgency.

“Many experts in and from Afghanistan warn that our presence over the past eight years has already hardened a meaningful percentage of the population into viewing the United States as an army of occupation which should be opposed and resisted,” writes Davis.

Providing the additional 40,000 troops that Gen. McChrystal has reportedly requested “is almost certain to further exacerbate” that problem, he warns.

Davis was a liaison officer between the Combined Forces Command – Afghanistan (CFC-A) and the Central Command in 2005, just as the Afghan insurgency was becoming a significant problem for the U.S. military. In that assignment he both consulted with the top U.S. officers and staff of the CFC-A and traveled widely throughout Afghanistan visiting U.S. and NATO combat units.

He also commanded a U.S. military transition team on the Iraqi border with Iran in 2008-09.

In the paper, Davis suggests what he calls a “Go Deep” strategy as an alternative to the recommendation from McChrystal for a larger counterinsurgency effort, which he calls “Go Big”.

The “Go Deep” strategy proposed by Davis would establish an 18-month time frame during which the bulk of U.S. and NATO combat forces would be withdrawn from the country. It would leave U.S. Special Forces and their supporting units, and enough conventional forces in Kabul to train Afghan troops and police and provide protection for U.S. personnel.

The forces that continue to operate in insurgent-dominated areas would wage “an aggressive counterterrorism effort” aimed in part at identifying Taliban and al Qaeda operatives. The strategy would also provide support for improved Afghan governance and training for security forces.

Davis argues that a large and growing U.S. military presence would make it more difficult to achieve this counterterrorism objective. By withdrawing conventional forces from the countryside, he suggests, U.S. strategy would deprive the insurgents of “easily identifiable and lucrative targets against which to launch attacks”.

Typically insurgents attack U.S. positions not for any tactical military objective, Davis writes, but to gain a propaganda victory.

The “Go Deep” strategy outlined in the paper appears to parallel the shift in strategy from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism being proposed by some officials in discussions in the White House in recent weeks.

After reading Davis’s paper, Col. Patrick Lang, formerly the defence intelligence officer for the Middle East, told IPS he regards the “Go Deep” strategy as “a fair representation of the alternative to the one option in General McChrystal’s assessment”.

Lang said he doubts that those advising Obama to shift to a counterterrorism strategy are calling specifically for the withdrawal of most combat troops, but he believes such a withdrawal “is certainly implicit in the argument”.

Davis told IPS he was surprised to hear from one official in a high position in Washington whose reaction to his paper was that what he is proposing in place of the “Go Big” option is still “too big”.

Davis said his views on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan have been shaped both by his personal experiences traveling throughout Afghanistan during his 2005 tour of duty and by conversations with U.S. military officers who have recently returned from Afghanistan.

“Mostly it was guys who’ve been out there in the field,” said Davis. “They have a different view from those who work in the headquarters.”

“I think there’s a whole lot of folks out there who agree with this,” he said.

He was flown out of Iraq for medical treatment in early June after suffering a partial loss of vision, and has been temporarily reassigned to the Defence Intelligence Agency. However, Davis said he was not assigned to work on Afghanistan and did the work on his Afghanistan strategy paper entirely on his own.

Davis said he had received permission from his immediate supervisor at DIA to circulate his personal analysis and recommendations on Afghanistan on the condition that he used only unclassified, open source information.

In the paper, Davis argues that the counterinsurgency strategy recommended by McChrystal would actually require a far larger U.S. force than is now being proposed. Citing figures given by Marine Corps Col. Julian Dale Alford at a conference last month, Davis writes that training 400,000 Afghan army and police alone would take 18 brigades of U.S. troops – as many as 100,000 U.S. troops when the necessary support troops are added.

The objective of expanding the Afghan security forces to 400,000, as declared in McChrystal’s “initial assessment”, poses other major problems as well, according to Davis.

He observes that the costs of such an expansion have been estimated at three to four times more than Afghanistan’s entire Gross Domestic Product. Davis asks what would happen if the economies of the states which have pledged to support those Afghan personnel come under severe pressures and do not continue the support indefinitely.

“It would be irresponsible to increase the size of the military to that level,” he writes, “convincing hundreds of thousands of additional Afghan men to join, giving them field training and weapons, and then at some point suddenly cease funding, throwing tens of thousands out of work.”

The result, he suggests, would be similar to what followed the U.S. failure to reassemble the Iraqi Army after the invasion of March 2003.

Davis also cites “growing anecdotal evidence” that popular anger at the abuses of power by the Afghan National Police has increased support for the insurgency.

He calls for scaling back the increase in Afghan security forces to the original targets of 134,000 Army troops and 80,000 national police. The crucial factor in determining the future of the country, he argues, is not the numbers of security personnel but whether they continue to abuse the population.

If that pattern of behaviour were to change dramatically, Davis says, “the number of Taliban fighters will dwindle to manageable numbers as those presently filling their ranks will no longer be motivated to fight”.

Davis challenges two arguments now being made in support of the counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan based on the Iraq experience: that a troop surge would help establish security and that the U.S. military can reduce insurgency by replicating the “Sons of Iraq” programme of bringing insurgents into militias that oppose their former allies.

The “surge” in Iraq was successful for a variety of reasons peculiar to Iraq and not duplicated in Afghanistan, Davis argues. And the “Sons of Iraq” was primarily the result of the alienation of the Sunni population by al Qaeda, which trumped Sunni opposition to the U.S. presence.

“[T]here is little to suggest,” he writes in reference to the areas where the Taliban has gained power, “that the population as a whole has reached a tipping point whereby they are ready to support the coalition against the Taliban.”

Challenging the argument of supporters of a larger war effort that it is necessary to avoid an increased risk of new terrorist attacks, Davis argues that being “myopically focused” on Afghanistan “at the expense of the rest of the world” increases the likelihood of an attack.

The present level of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, he writes, will “make it more likely that terrorist organizations will take advantage of the opportunity to plan and train elsewhere for the next big attack.”

*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

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