Expert: Afghan Security Forces Can Be Made Ready

Andrew Exum, senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, says the U.S. has not yet tried to win in Afghanistan, having diverted forces to fight in Iraq. He says that he expects Afghan security forces to take the lead in protecting the Afghan population in 12-24 months after an increase in U.S. troops to train them.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Andrew Exum was one of many advisors to General McChrystal as he prepared his review of the war in Afghanistan. Exum is a former U.S. Army captain who led U.S. Army Rangers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He's now with the Center for a New American Security. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ANDREW EXUM (Center for a New American Security): Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about what's not in this assessment today and that's the potential call for more U.S. troops. A skeptic would say, look, we've been in Afghanistan for eight years now. The Afghan army is nowhere near taking the lead. What's the best argument for the notion that more U.S. troops will make a difference in the numbers that we're talking about - doubling the size of Afghan security forces?

Mr. EXUM: I think the first thing that I would say is that I was there at the beginning of this war. I was there again in 2004. I went back this past summer, but I also fought in a place called Iraq. And Iraq was most certainly a drain on U.S. and allied resources for some pretty crucial years in Afghanistan. So, even though we've been there on the ground for quite a long time, as candidate Obama correctly noted in the run-up to the 2008 elections, we hadn't really tried to win in Afghanistan.

With respect to the Afghan national security forces, we know that we need to increase the troops to population ratio in Afghanistan to be successful from a counter-insurgency perspective. You can't do that only with U.S. and allied troops. So you're left with trying to grow the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police to supplement your own troop levels. And ideally, after, you know, 12 to 24 months, they should be the ones in the lead protecting the Afghan population, not the U.S. and its allies.

BLOCK: And does that seem realistic to you?

Mr. EXUM: I think it is realistic. I think that a realistic strategy for Afghanistan is that once - the good news is is that we'll be out of the lead in 24 months. The bad news is that I think we're looking at another three years of transition in Afghanistan and probably another five years after that in over-watch. So I think knowledgeable observers of the Afghanistan conflict look at a future engagement with Afghanistan and, you know, another decade of fighting.

BLOCK: You know, at the same time that we're talking about a buildup of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, we are at the end of a month that saw the highest number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan since the war began, which is giving a lot of people pause about an escalation of this conflict.

Mr. EXUM: Absolutely. I don't want to seem callous, because, again, I've led U.S. soldiers into combat on three separate occasions. But I think that if you're looking for metrics to gauge U.S. and allied success or failure in Afghanistan, over the next year, violence is going to be a really bad metric.

As we put more soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, as we increase our presence patrols, as we try to deny the Afghan population to the Taliban and the Hakani network and these groups that are waging a campaign of fear and intimidation against the Afghan people, violence is going to go up. The key metrics to look at are not so much how many U.S. and allied soldiers are killed, but how many fewer Afghan civilians are killed.

BLOCK: Isn't there, though, a troubling intersection of military and political goals here? In other words, the government of Hamid Karzai is widely seen as corrupt. We just saw Afghan elections where there were widespread accounts of fraud. People are asking what exactly is our U.S. military operation supporting there?

Mr. EXUM: Absolutely, I think that one of the ugly realities of Afghanistan or Iraq, as well, in 2007, 2008 is that our success depends largely on what our Afghan partners do and fail to do. And if that government in Afghanistan is seen as being less legitimate a year from now than they are today, it doesn't matter what we've done with respect to our own operations. We can still be facing down the barrel of mission failure in Afghanistan.

BLOCK: You say a year from now. What about right now? Members of Congress, the American people are going to be looking at things right now and saying: Why should we be sending more troops to Afghanistan given what we know right now?

Mr. EXUM: In Afghanistan, we've just put a new commander in place. We've just committed new civilian resources but I think that members of Congress and the American public need to know that additional brigades that are committed to Afghanistan, additional civilian resources that are committed to Afghanistan are likely not going to arrive until next spring.

It's too soon, I believe, to call the time on Afghanistan when we're just now starting to match our resources with strategic aims. But having said that, after 18 months, if we don't see any movement as far as building up key Afghan institutions, such as the security forces, as far as reducing Afghan civilian casualties, then I think that the public and their representatives have every right to start asking questions.

BLOCK: Andrew Exum, thank you very much.

Mr. EXUM: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Andrew Exum is a former army captain who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's now a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.

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U.S. Commander: New Plan Needed In Afghanistan

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal i i

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces, visits an Afghan National Police compound in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province on Aug. 21. Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal

U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces, visits an Afghan National Police compound in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province on Aug. 21.

Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images

U.S. military tactics in Afghanistan are likely to continue shifting after the top American commander delivered a long-awaited assessment Monday that says the situation there is "serious," but salvageable.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who issued the confidential report, is pushing for closer integration of U.S., NATO, and Afghan forces.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy and increased unity of effort," McChrystal said in submitting his report.

McChrystal is not specifically asking for additional troops in this report, but a separate request for forces will be sent in the next week or so, sources tell NPR. The general is expected to offer several options for possible troops increases, from one brigade to at least three, pointing out the risks and greater timeframe inherent in not sending more forces.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates ordered the 60-day review to assess the security situation as Taliban attacks continue.

"While there is a lot of gloom and doom going around, I think that Gen. McChrystal's assessment will be a realistic one, and set forth the challenges we have in front of us," Gates said Monday when asked about the report. "At the same time, I think we have some assets in place and some developments that hold promise."

McChrystal was named three months ago in an effort to curb the rising Taliban insurgency.

President Obama also ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan this year, raising the total number of U.S. forces there to about 64,000. Another 4,000 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division are slated to arrive next month to train Afghan soldiers.

But August has been the deadliest month of the war for U.S. forces since the conflict began in 2001, with 47 troops killed in Afghanistan, according to The Associated Press.

Some analysts are worried that sending additional troops to Afghanistan could end up backfiring.

"To the extent that the military effort is American-dominated, we begin to look increasingly like an imperial army, which obviously has enormous political ramifications in terms of our ability to marshal opposition to the Taliban and the ability of the Taliban to recruit fighters," says Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who now runs his own consulting business.

McChrystal's report is not expected to be made public, but sources tell NPR that the general is pushing to place more of his troops in populated areas, rather than pursuing Taliban guerillas into remote valleys and mountains.

McChrystal also will call for a "bigger and better" Afghan army and police force, along with a stronger U.S. partnership with those forces.

That's a "fundamental shift," one source familiar with the report tells NPR.

U.S. forces are expected to integrate the Afghan troops more in their operations and work as mentors with the Afghan forces.

Under current plans, the Afghan army is projected to grow from 93,000 to 134,000 troops by 2011, and there have been growing calls to make it even larger. But not everyone agrees that Afghanistan can support an army of that size.

"My concern is that even current plans, if realized, will bring about an Afghan army that is economically unsustainable by Afghanistan," says Grenier, adding that the force has additional challenges. "A national army will always face a natural suspicion and a certain level of opposition, particularly in the Pashtun parts of the country where distrusts of the central government is endemic."

Separately, McChrystal is pushing for a greater "unity of effort" with NATO and other countries that have sent troops to Afghanistan. But he is concerned, says one source, that many nations are "running in different directions, different missions, answering to different commands at home and terribly restrictive caveats."

If disunity in NATO's operations is a problem, the scattered efforts of Afghan authorities are potentially even more serious.

The campaign leading to the Aug. 20 election revealed growing dissatisfaction with the leadership of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is leading in the current vote count, but is so far falling short of a majority of the votes. A runoff in October between Karzai and the second-place finisher will take place if Karzai does not capture more than 50 percent of the vote.

Analysts increasingly point to the Kabul's inability to improve the lives of most Afghans, particularly those living outside of the capital city.

The Obama administration has put an increased emphasis on supporting civilian efforts to improve the economy and deliver health care and other services, but most of the effort relies on a dysfunctional Afghan government.

"The really critical factor will be how and in what way we can induce Afghans to deal with their own problems," says Thomas Pickering, a former top State Department official who co-chaired an influential study on Afghanistan that came out last year. "They have this collective problem of the need to cope with modernization, the Taliban and massive underdevelopment at the same time with a weak central government that has to depend heavily on local authorities."

U.S. efforts to bring in more civilian advisers have been slow, in part because the State Department has a limited number of qualified experts available for assignments in Afghanistan.

"We have the capacity in this country," says Pickering. "Can we build it in the State Department? Yes, of course we can, but it takes a lot of time and it takes funding."

A report by the American Academy of Diplomacy called for boosting the size of the State Department's diplomatic corps by 50 percent, a recommendation driven in part by the shortfalls in Afghanistan. "For example, all State political and USAID field positions in the Afghan provinces are vacant an average of two months a year due to the inability of organizations to cover scheduled absences," the report found.

Pickering notes that Congress is currently debating bills that would boost the State Department's funding and allow for a significant increase in hiring.

"For the first time, people have realized that civilian funding, along with military funding, plays a vital role in addressing problems like Afghanistan," he says.

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