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The Military Outlook in Afghanistan: Betting Against the Odds

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The U.S. troop presence has peaked in Afghanistan at 101,000 and from here on out the Afghans will increasingly be on their own, President Obama made clear Wednesday night. The military challenge going forward is easy to describe, but tough to execute: can the fledgling Afghan national security forces — salted with corruption, deserters and Taliban sympathizers — preserve the gains that have cost 1,551 Americans their lives and the nation’s taxpayers more than $450 billion since the war began Oct. 7, 2001 — the longest war in U.S. history?

The withdrawal of 33,000 troops by the end of next summer is swifter than the U.S. military wanted, and — not coincidentally — the same number of troops Obama ordered into Afghanistan in late 2009. Some 5,000 troops will start heading home next month, with an additional 5,000 to follow by year’s end. Some 23,000 more will be home by the end of summer 2012. While it’s not the “modest” cut originally championed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama’s national-security team ultimately endorsed the President’s pullout plan, senior administration officials said. In the final analysis, the military could not guarantee that a slower drawdown would yield a better outcome, Pentagon officials add.

The U.S. launched the war on Afghanistan 26 days after the 9/11 attacks to punish Taliban-ruled Afghanistan for providing sanctuary to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base from which to plot the strikes against the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon, with hijacked airliners. Nearly 3,000 people died, including 44 on a plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the passengers overpowered the four al Qaeda hijackers aboard and prevented it from reaching its target – likely the White House or the Capitol.

(PHOTOS: A Blackhawk’s View of Afghanistan)

The U.S. military succeeded in the invasion’s goal — ousting the Taliban — by the end of 2001. But the U.S. government quickly turned the effort into a nation-building exercise, complete with the installation of a new government and nearly $20 billion in development efforts. Yet instead of maintaining momentum for such an ambitious mission, it languished for years once the Bush Administration diverted military resources in 2003 so it could invade Iraq. When you speak to Pentagon officials privately, that is their greatest regret: that they had to shift their efforts to a second theater knowing the first one would be neglected as a result.

“We will not try to make Afghanistan a perfect place,” Obama said Wednesday night. “We will not police its streets or patrol its mountains indefinitely.” The removal of U.S. troops means that instead of focusing on protecting Afghan civilians – a manpower-intensive exercise dubbed “counter-insurgency,” or COIN, inside the military – the U.S. military will tilt toward killing bad guys from here on out (known as “counter-terrorism”).

The President made his decision after the U.S. military has had 18 months of successful offenses designed to push the Taliban out of Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan. There is hope – but not confidence – that the Afghan security forces will be able to consolidate those gains.

Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan and says he saw much progress:

Afghanistan is winnable. Given a great deal of resources, a flexible leadership, and several more years, the current strategy will succeed. But at this point resources and time are running out. Senior leaders were realistic about the problems facing them, and many recognized that they were in a race against time, resources, and the enemy. But few of them fully realized that they are now losing this race. Resources are already dropping, and without substantive and demonstrable progress in the next year, they are likely to drop even faster.

Obama’s decision simply locks into place a U.S. drawdown that may doom all that has been achieved in Afghanistan over the past decade. Military success is only the first step in a process designed to make Afghanistan a cogent country able to keep terrorists at bay. The more important skill – growing Afghanistan so it can shrug off terrorism – continues to elude the U.S. Obama’s push for 1,000 U.S. government civilians to travel to Afghanistan to help build the nation has fallen short; fewer than 500 are there. This may play a role in the U.S.’s inability to master the art of development. According to Cordesman:

An interview with a USAID engineer helped illustrate this problem. He had been tasked with building an ANP [Afghan National Police] headquarters in southern Afghanistan. The building was designed with a 3 story glass atrium, as well as modern air conditioning and fire-detection/suppression systems. Yet most of the personnel who would be manning the building were “from the mountains.” When pressed on what this phrase meant, he replied “most of the men had never even seen a door.” They literally did not know how to use a door knob. This building should not have been built for any number of reasons: the building costs, let alone the power requirements to cool a 3 story glass atrium are extreme by Afghan standards, and a 3 story glass atrium in an area with few if any other 3 story buildings makes a tempting target. But sustainability needs to be paramount – in two years this building will likely be non-functioning and abandoned. If only a fraction of the money spent had been used to build a sturdy, low-tech building that the Afghans could maintain, in 2 years the building at least has a chance of actually functioning.

With aid like this, who needs the Taliban?

PHOTOS: President Obama in Afghanistan

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