Friday, January 29, 2010

Afghanistan Speech Leaves Unanswered Questions

The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Date: Saturday, December 12 2009

President Barack Obama 's exquisitely delivered "Way Forward in Afghanistan" speech on Dec. 1 reminded me of Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Holmes solves the mystery based on what did not happen. The hound did not bark, therefore the murderer must have been known to the famous canine. Before the speech, Obama said, "I feel very confident that when the American people hear a clear rationale for what we're doing there and how we intend to achieve our goals, that they will be supportive." In fact, he failed to address six critical questions that did not "bark":

* How will we pay for the additional 30,000 troops? The incremental cost is $30 billion per year on top of the $75 billion we are already spending in Afghanistan. The national debt is now $12 trillion. One might ask: What is a greater threat to U.S. national security, the Taliban controlling Afghanistan or the Chinese saying they will no longer buy U.S. Treasury bills?

* What is the critical national-security interest in Afghanistan? If it is to deny al-Qaida safe haven, what is to keep them from continuing to operate in Pakistan or in Somalia, Yemen or Indonesia? Does this strategy imply that we will invade these countries next? Al-Qaida is a global terrorist organization that does not recognize national borders.

* Are we fighting a counterinsurgency against the Taliban or anti-terrorism against al-Qaida? The two are vastly different campaigns with different costs, tactics, geographic scope, intelligence requirements and implications for alliances. Or, are we trying to do both and in so doing driving the Taliban and al-Qaida to alliances with one another? The best current estimate of U.S. intelligence agencies is that there are approximately 100 al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan.

* How committed is NATO? Of the 7,000 additional troops promised by NATO, 1,500 are already in Afghanistan, sent months ago to bolster security during the presidential election. Two allies, Canada and the Netherlands, still plan to withdraw 5,000 troops in the next two years, offsetting the increase. Additionally, an undisclosed number of new troops will steer clear of any fighting because they are barred by their governments from combat operations, and many of the rest are barred from any nighttime combat operations. Only the British and Australians have rules of engagement similar to the U.S. One might also question whether Pakistan is a helpful ally in this effort, evidence to date strongly suggests that it is not. Finally, civilian support to nation-building and distribution of humanitarian aid is ineffective due to a lack of security, organization, unified leadership and funding.

* Is the Afghan national army capable of becoming viable? The plan is to increase the Afghan army from its current strength of 92,000 to 134,000 by 2011 to facilitate a U.S. exit. The implication in the president's speech is that additional U.S. trainers will enable this growth. He assumes that young Pashtun tribesmen, 75 percent to 90 percent of whom are illiterate, will sign up to fight and die in support of the corrupt, ineffective narco-state known as the Karzai government and put their families in jeopardy of Taliban reprisals in their absence. This goal also ignores the current 30 percent desertion rate in the Afghan army. Finally, President Hamid Karzai has stated that it will be 15 to 20 years before Afghanistan is capable of self-defense without U.S. assistance.

* What is the effect on the U.S. military? In 2005, military analysts inside and outside of the Pentagon were asking whether the Army and Marine Corps were simply stressed or on the verge of breaking. In the interim, deployment cycles have remained rapid. Suicides, drug use, post-traumatic stress disorder and divorce rates in the military have increased. At the same time, the military's initial entry standards for age, physical fitness, education and moral conduct have been lowered. An "all-volunteer" military vision of excellence may have been compromised by an unrelenting, unshared burden. Given this, could the U.S. mount a credible military response in Iran, Korea, the Taiwan Strait or to a significant attack on the U.S. homeland?
I believe these are critical questions that, if Sherlock Holmes were president, he would have asked. Knowing that these questions did not "bark" in the president's speech makes it difficult for many Americans to justify his stated confidence that they will be supportive.

DENNIS J. LAICH \ U.S. Army, retired \ Powell

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