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And I Think It’s Gonna be a Long, Long Time: General McKiernan on Afghanistan

david_d_mckiernan.thumbnail.jpgGen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, spoke to the Pentagon press corps yesterday and gave some indications of the state of his thinking on the war. Let’s do this listicle style.

1. The 17,000 new troops are going to southern Afghanistan. Remember that this complement of new troops is in response to a request that McKiernan gave to Central Command and the Pentagon last year. So he’s been thinking for a while about what to do with his reinforcements. The south is a big opium belt and basically a Taliban stronghold, where, McKiernan said, "we do not have sufficient security presence, an area that has deteriorated somewhat, an area where we need persistent security presence in order to fight a counterinsurgency and to shape clear, hold and build in support of a rapidly developing Afghan capacity." In the area, the U.S. is "at best, stalemated." The maneuverable Strykers are on their way to Afghanistan for what I think is the first time. We’ll see what kind of capability they provide against the insurgency. Get ready for 2009 to be the year of the battle for southern Afghanistan.

2. Notice what McKiernan did there? If you didn’t know he was in Afghanistan, you would think that quote described Iraq during the surge. Clear-hold-build is a strategy that Condoleezza Rice came up with out of thin air during congressional testimony in 2005, when that decidedly wasn’t military strategy in Iraq. The surge represented its first actual chance at implementation, except that Gen. David Petraeus interpreted "hold" to include the provision of security for the civilian population. McKiernan clearly thinks the strategy is appropriate for Afghanistan. In theory, it’s not wrong. But what we need to hear is how local circumstances influence his approach so that it’s not a cookie-cutter formula imported from a much different war.

3. He needs money to accelerate the training of Afghan troops. Secretary Bob Gates has warned that it’s necessary to have "an Afghan face" on the war. To that end, McKiernan is looking at expanding the size and the training of Afghan forces. Commendably, he said straight-up that he’ll need cash for that. Interestingly, he’s going to change the mission of his combat forces to incorporate training and mentoring, which have previously been more bifurcated than the training-through-combat effort has been in Iraq. "We want to bring it to the left" — that’s military jargon for "move it faster" — "which will require not only more trainers and more of a partnering, mentoring effort, but also additional funding to move it left." Shorter McKiernan: Hey, Congress, if you want to make this the last big troop increase for the war, you’ll give me the money I’m about to ask for.

4. Not exactly Sons of Afghanistan. There’s been a lot of confusion over this. "I have never talked about tribal militias," he interrupted a reporter. Instead, he said he’ll support a Kabul-directed program that runs from the Ministry of Interior to the Afghan National Police to better integrate locals in their security. That sounds more like a police recruitment program, but wow, is this mess still unclear. "The United States will not provide the money for the weapons. Those weapons will be provided by the Afghan government through the minister of interior." I cannot tell without further reporting if this really is different from supporting tribal militias, or if McKiernan just can’t say that because it’s politically toxic in Afghanistan. It sounds like there are some differences, but it’s not clear that they’re the most relevant ones. (Maybe this is the adaptation of the Iraq strategy I wondered about above.)

5. This is probably the last troop increase. McKiernan acknowledged that he got about "two-thirds of what I asked for" from President Obama. He’s going to see if he can break the stalemate in the south before considering any further increase. But he indicated that he doesn’t want to break the emergency glass. "I don’t think I’m going to ask for more than I’ve already asked for." Of course, he’s shy of what he’s already asked for, so he reserved, rhetorically, the right to go back to the well with Gates and Obama if he can’t change the situation in southern Afghanistan. Beyond that, he indicated he’ll look to Afghan capabilities and to NATO member-states for more troops if necessary. Good luck with that.

6. More troops doesn’t necessarily mean fewer airstrikes, but they’ll help. Airstrikes account for over 60 percent of U.S.-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2008. I assumed that more infantrymen will mean a reduced reliance on the strikes. Not necessarily, McKiernan said, though he’d like to be more ground-centric. "You have to look at it in terms of the threat, in terms of the terrain. But I think there’s a possibility to have less reliance on air firepower."
7. Reconciliation with Taliban fighters sure would be nice. McKiernan really didn’t want to be dragged into the should-we-talk-with-the-Taliban debate. Here’s what he said about what Petraeus just calls ‘reconciliation‘:

I agree with General Petraeus’s characterization of there are some that are reconcilable and there are some that are irreconcilable. And I think the effects that I would say are most important are what happens at the local level with fighters, those who wish to lay down their weapons, choose another future, maybe through other employment opportunities, through education, something that’s an alternative to fighting in an insurgency.

8. We will be fighting in Afghanistan for years. Here’s where the Obama strategy review really does need to offer a vision of what the endgame looks like in Afghanistan. McKiernan envisions a long fight. "For the next three to four years, I think we’re going to need to stay heavily committed and sustain — in a sustained manner in Afghanistan."

Crossposted to The Streak.

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