On Afghanistan: Why Not “Plan A-“?

Popular opinion notwithstanding, there are hopeful trends in Afghanistan – beginning with an improved economy, health care networks and educational systems as well as improving security around Kabul.
That said, security remains poor in the south, and the corruption-ridden Karzai government alienates many Afghan citizens. U.S. strategy may fail as a result, and so critics are right to begin talking about “Plan B.”

The most popular alternative emphasizes targeted counterterrorism operations rather than comprehensive counterinsurgency – especially in the Pashtun south and east, where the insurgencies are strongest. As Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars” underscores, this strategy does have key sympathizers in the White House. They may have considerable influence during future Afghanistan policy debates.

But while Washington does need to have a debate about Plan B, this strategy is not the right one.

Long-range counterterrorism strikes are oxymoronic. They cannot succeed without intelligence – which is dependent on access to the local population. By rapidly withdrawing our forces, we would concede control of a large territory, which could then be used by anyone from the Afghan Taliban to Al Qaeda to Pakistani Taliban seeking to destabilize their own nuclear state.

In addition, current U.S. strategy still has a good chance of success. It could stabilize most of Afghanistan before U.S. force downsizing begins – reducing the possibility of future operating bases for extremists.

Should our plan show substantial promise in the coming months, President Barack Obama would be well advised to stick with it-even if it means July troop drawdowns would likely be modest.

But if conditions fail to improve, and Obama chooses a less ambitious strategy next year, there is a better way than the counterterrorism/soft-partition concept now being pushed.

Rather than conceding one-third or more of the country to extremists after reducing our forces, we should link our drawdown to the development of the Afghan security forces. They now number 240,000 and are due to increase to 305,000 by next fall. Further growth, to roughly 400,000, could be possible by late 2012 or 2013.

That target is higher than the White House has yet approved. Indeed, as Woodward reveals, it was resisted in last year’s policy review. But it makes sense, is preferable to any alternative backup plan and would probably be enough for the country’s needs.

Over time, the Afghan army and police could extend greater control over regions that remain chaotic – just as Pakistan hopes to stabilize its tribal regions on the other side of the border in coming years. It might not work completely in the foreseeable future, but it could limit the size of any lawless areas and attempt to shrink them over time.

U.S. forces could start leaving by late 2011 or 2012 under this alternative strategy, and be reduced by 20,000 to 30,000 troops a year thereafter.

Make no mistake: This plan is still demanding. Indeed, it might be better called “Plan A-” instead of “Plan B.”

U.S. and other NATO-led forces would likely keep fighting in Afghanistan for two to three more years — even under a plan that emphasized Afghan efforts. The army and police, while improving, are not likely to be ready in the short term to prevent an insurgent victory. Our new training effort for Afghan forces also requires intensive partnering — patrolling and fighting together.

But with this plan, we would not need to stay indefinitely. If some regions — particularly the south, in Kandahar and Helmand — proved hard to stabilize in the next few years, we could view them as long-term challenges for Afghan forces rather than NATO troops. Our own involvement beyond 2012-3 would be limited to a supporting role.

One reason this Plan A- makes sense is that it can be adopted as a logical extension of the current effort without having to acknowledge a setback. But an even more important rationale is that NATO’s strategy for improving the Afghan army and police is now beginning to work.

Progress has been rapid this year, helped by tripling the number of trainers, doubling pay for Afghan soldiers or policemen, roughly doubling length of training regimens and creating literacy courses for 25,000 Afghan security personnel at a time. More than 90 percent of Afghan army units now have a permanent NATO sister unit. Police have further to go, but are moving in the right direction, at last.

By bounding our future options in Afghanistan within these two possible approaches-the current strategy of comprehensive counterinsurgency, and an alternative focusing more narrowly on the Afghan security forces – we can improve the odds of achieving at least a minimally acceptable outcome: the prevention of a Taliban takeover and no permanent sanctuary for extremists on Afghan soil.

Framing our debate within these parameters would help reassure Afghans and Pakistanis, many of whom are now hedging against a rapid U.S. withdrawal that they fear will start next year. They would be more likely to support our efforts.

At the same time, this new plan would allow Obama to reassure Americans that, though the conflict in Afghanistan is hardly near its end, it is not going to become his Vietnam.