Withdrawal is not (Necessarily) Surrender

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by Joshua Foust on 9/25/2009 · 22 comments

It’s finally being put into motion: the withdrawal from vast tracts of indefensible bases in places like Nuristan. This news comes right as General McChrystal goes on the teevee to notice that the country is actually worse off since he took over—a brave thing to do, considering the hagiography being built around him. So, will this work?

I am a deep skeptic of conceding territory for a variety of reasons: it often leaves the area in question worse off, and in many cases the abandoned area becomes a staging ground for further insurgent attacks on the newly consolidated territory. When the decision finally comes down to retake said abandoned territory, it is often much more difficult and expensive and deadly to retake it than if the Coalition had maintained even a minimal presence all along.

However, in a world without infinite resources (ahem), we realistically must decide which places to abandon and which to focus on. In that sense, abandoning Nuristan makes a lot of sense. Much of the U.S.’s activity in that area has been misplaced and poorly focused. The retaking of Bargimatal several months ago didn’t make much sense—the area holds no real strategic value, we just did it for pride.

I spoke with a friend who has a lot of experience in the area (no names, unfortunately, because we tend to punish honesty when it comes to this place). He noted that when Eikenberry was a Lieutenant General in charge of the country in 2005-ish, he visited Nuristan and immediately began $100 million in road construction (which was about 1/3 of all road funding in the country). Ever since, it’s been an incredibly high-profile shatterzone: hyper-violent, everyone’s favorite case study for whatever, but at the same time weirdly stagnant, in that very little progress seems to have been made.

While the previous two governors of the province are charismatic and enjoyable to talk to, my friend said, the area contains no real strategic value—something I, too, have said. It’s relatively easy to track militant movement along the three main north-south valleys, and if they are forced into traversing the extremely difficult passes to move east-west, they’re limited to movement only a few months out of the year, and even then it’s slow and extremely difficult. The Americans in the area have to deal with horrendous logistics, including overly long airlift requirements for food and water, so staying there just doesn’t make sense.

Moreover, as this Washington Post piece makes clear, in places like Kamu and Kamdesh the U.S. almost never interacts with the local population anyway (a little birdie told me the community of Kamdesh struck an agreement with the military that no one from its Observation Post 300 meters away will ever step foot inside their village). Needless to say, there’s not much “reconstruction” going on there, either—the provincial capital is still a dreary, empty nothing. It’s not like the people will really notice our absence.

There is a problem, however, with what we do next. The new plan, so they say, is to reposition forces away from far-flung outposts and closer to population and government centers. It sounds pretty, except we’ve tried that—in Nuristan, no less. Remember the Want (or “Wanat”) VPB attack? Of course you do: I wrote about it here, here, here, and here, for example (and many months before Tom Ricks every did!).

What gets glossed over in the discussion of the attack on Want itself is its context: Want is the district center of Waigal District, easily the most studied area of Nuristan (the majority of “recent” ethnographic texts on Nuristan focus on the Waigal River Valley). U.S. forces had decided in mid-2008 to reposition themselves at the district center after realizing that a much more remote outpost in Bella and the Ranch House in Aranas (or Zhonchigal if you’re a fan of Schuyler Jones) were both untenable positions. That is, in mid-2008 the military already was thinking that it didn’t make sense to support such far-flung outposts when they didn’t gain any real benefit from them, and many locals seemed to feel their presence actually made them worse off.

In other words, in Nuristan we had begun enacting the McChrystal policy over a year before it got pushed out as an order. Only, as we know from Want, it ended very poorly (rumor has it the villagers near Want asked the U.S. to withdraw from the region because their presence made security nearby substantially worse off).

Therefore, the most important part of the policy is not just recognizing that some communities simply don’t matter to the overall war effort, and it’s not just being willing to withdraw to a slightly more defensible position—the position itself matters. Right now the biggest Afghan-based challenge to the legitimacy of the mission (that is, not the growing chorus of people asserting we have no purpose there, but a local reason to indicate our failing) is the Talibanization of the North. That is the first place I would send any extra troops, as it is where our fortunes are being reverse the quickest and most dramatically. Things have been bad in the South for years—while that can be managed at the moment, the deterioration around Kunduz and surrounding areas is a critical issue, as it represents pushing ISAF and the Afghan government out of what used to be a permissive, safe, and prosperous area.

The thing is, everyone still wants to talk about Kandahar. While things are bad there, there are also thousands of troops already there that can be used better. The North remains terribly under-resourced for the clearing and holding that must be done—and the people there are far more likely to begin actively collaborating with a renewed U.S. presence.

So here’s hoping we make the right decision and concentrate our additional forces on where they can be best served. With any luck, we can avoid a repeat of the Helmand-in-2009 mistake.

Photo: Kandagal village, looking east, by Panoramino user JoelPac.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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BruceR September 25, 2009 at 12:19 pm

Agreed re your second last para. It’s the big problem with the Kagans’ study this week. Too reactive. I don’t see value to more Western forces (with the possible exception of police mentors) in Kandahar, on top of what’s just gotten there. A brigade there, along with the brigades in Helmand and the ANA, should be enough. Their maximalist idea that Kandahar needs up to 4 more Western brigades (!) alone seems to be barn-door closing, post-horse… if we ever did need 4 more Western brigades to keep Kandahar under control, we’d be close to the point of pushing helicopters off roofs anyway.

Joshua Foust September 28, 2009 at 6:37 am

I agree. Rajiv Chandrasekaran just wrote another dispatch in which the guys in Kandahar think they need to secure Kandahar with more troops to win. I wonder why they’d say that, and if people elsewhere would disagree…

DE Teodoru October 4, 2009 at 7:20 pm

No police forces can be of any value if not well trained in technical skills of police work– therefore techincally literate– and VERY well paid. We saw that with South Vietnam’s “white mice.” When replaced by Phoenix Teams and RD cadres of people with many months of training, the VCI fell vulnerable– and it was an all GVN show by 1969. I thought that for both Iraqi and Afghan police, we should have taken entire familes to the US or Europe for training and literacy, maybe for 3 or more years, and then, keeping their familes safe abroad, sending police OFFICERS back into action to work under close advisory role of well integrated SOF leaders so they could impose rule of law. In Vietnam the VCI was a core structure that dominated a coalition of NLF factions (most were fictious entities) that provided regular units from North Vietnam the infrastructural and logistic support they needed via Fortified Liberation Villages to operate their missions. In Iraq/Afghan cases there is not foreign controlled central core as in South Vietnam; there often is no coordination between local factions. And yet, our “kinetics” failed to separate local interests from Taliban and/or alQaeda interests. I would be most interested in any explanation of characteristics of the way we operate that would explain the current situation where no matter how much more “kinetics” we throw in, the bigger becomes the response, often more as local gang guerrillas lightly armed than an organized insurgency. It would be intersting to know how much curent insurgents benifit from Soviet experience. As I recall, they managed, by attrition, to create very effective combat teams to isloate and eliminate Soviet units, much as VC/NVA did to US/ARVN units. What can be said about how well the American commanders learned from the Vietnam and Soviet experiences?

anan September 25, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Joshua, the ANA just added a brigade to Kunduz, 2-209. Perhaps a more effective option that more ISAF combat troops would be to upgrade the OMLT teams in 209th ANA to:
1) one ISAF augmented advisory bde HQs super embedded in 209th ANA Corps (are the Germans good enough to do this?)
2) two ISAF augmented advisory battalion HQs super embedded in 1-209 and 2-209 brigades. (one of them would have to be German to avoid offending their sensibilities, but should the US insist that one of them be American, specifically 2-209 in Kunduz?)
3) 6 ISAF augmented advisory combat companies super embedded in the six 209th ANA combat battalions. (some have to be American, some would be German, Swede, Norwegian and Hungarian.)
4) companies embedded in the 2 CSS and 2 CS battalions
5) assign 1300 men per 209th ANA combat battalion versus the 650 authorized per combat battalion.

This might be the most effective way to go. The real question is if the US should insist that US troops or other non Germans replace the German mentors for the 209th ANA? Any opinion on how the Swedish, Norwegian and Hungarian OMLTs are doing in RC-North?

Another option is more embedded advisors for the police. Since the ANP and ANA in Kunduz seem pretty committed to fighting and winning, why not help them win (with substantial ISAF support.) Victories in Kunduz would boost the morale of the ANSF everywhere. It would also be a negative narrative for Haqqani and the Quetta Shura Taliban.

Another option would be to return the hundreds of motivated ANP from Kunduz that were transferred to fight Taliban in the “more dangerous” South. Since the Kunduz provincial ANP leadership seems anti Taliban to the corps, should new ANP coming out of basic training be diverted from the South to Kunduz?

Joshua, perhaps you should discuss in terms of where you think additional ANP and ANA should be sent, in addition to where combat ISAF troops should be sent. My preference would be that they stop creating new ANA combat bns beyond the first 52 (plus 8 combat commando for 60 total combat bns), and instead focus on assigning more than the 650 authorized per combat bn (kandak.) Nothing wrong with 1300 assigned per combat bn to grow cadre and wait until new NCOs and officers become experienced before adding new combat bns.

DE Teodoru October 4, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Anan, how much of a logistic hardship would your proposed super-embbeding cause? Can ISAF afford such an investment there in light on the new McChrystal notions of prioritizing? How would ANP and ANA coordinate to layer the police and military ops? Would they operate under a foreign command or their local Afghan leaders? Would US/German units work together or separate from ANP/ANA units? How good is the linguistic communication, given what Faust wrote in NY Times about translators as thin reeds of communications?

anan September 25, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Bruce, what do you think about overstrenghtening 1-205 ANA’s four combat battalions to 1000-1300 assigned versus the authorized 650? Would this be better than creating new battalions, let alone brigade HQs before the officer corps matures?

Ian September 25, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Thank you for this very well-considered post. (I would like to think that my whiney complaining in the comments here might have played a role in developing it.) I think you make an excellent about defining the “position” as the thing that matters, not other things; to treat it as the end, not the means to the end. I’m still a huge skeptic of more troops before we can prove that the ones there can do small things well, but I respect what you are saying.

Joshua Foust September 28, 2009 at 6:39 am

Your whiny complaining made me realize that we have to make some choices, no matter how sub-optimal. Nuristan makes sense as the first place.

I, too, am a growing skeptic of more troops. If they’re not being used properly, more troops really can’t be relied upon to improve things much, can they?

anan September 25, 2009 at 3:01 pm

Ian, the training and mentoring of the new ANA and ANP will require a large increase in the number of ISAF to avoid a reduction in the quality of the ANA and ANP. At a minimum, Obama needs to send two new brigades for this effort.

M SHANNON September 25, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I agree that Nuristan is of little strategic value. Which Afghan Province is? None to us and apparently not many to the Afghans. Which leads to the inevitable western withdrawal from the entire place which brings up the question as to why NATO soldiers would endanger themselves to pacify a place about to be abandoned.

Danny October 3, 2009 at 8:41 pm

Being there right now, I can say Nuristan is of great strategic value. 80% of the food (ag) produced in Afghanistan is produced in the northeast – Nuristan making up the bulk of that harvest. That production has been the result of the vast amount of water that flows through and fertile fields along the way. These areas were decimated during the decades of war which are painted on the faces of the hard working agrarians hiking aimlessly through their fields. Our presence is turning that back around. Nearly every one of our projects through the Provincial Reconstrcution Team has been to create growth in the fields (wheather from creating a tree farm or increasing water efficiencies) to the commerce of those products (building roads and bridges). Food production is vital to convincing the next generation there’s hope around the corner. Strategic – well, go take a walk to the villages like I do and you’ll see smiles where there were once frowns. Beleive me, it’s working.

Joshua Foust October 3, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Yeah, gotta throw the BS flag on this one. Unless there is a Nuristan, Ohio, I’m pretty sure you’re not there right now. But please, if they suddenly started routing all Afghanistan NIPR traffic through DODNIC, I’ll be happily corrected.

Secondly, the geography of Nuristan makes widespread agriculture impossible. It’s not an area of broad valleys — it’s almost all steep ravines with extremely small areas capable of supporting any cultivation whatsoever, and even then only after extensive irrigation work and manuring and crop rotation. Even when things were relatively great there in the 1970s, Schuyler Jones wrote that most communities were barely self sufficient because they had so little arable land, and they certainly had few if any economic connections to the outside (their primary exports were felt and ghee).

I don’t doubt the Nuristan PRT has been devoted to building roads in the province—I said as much in the post. But claiming Nuristan is the breadbasket of Afghanistan is a ridiculous claim at odds with literally all the research and surveys available of the place. Without any evidence, I don’t believe for a second that a) the “northeast” generates 80% of Afghanistan’s food, and especially that Nuristan “makes up the bulk” of that food.

And even if Nuristan was somehow Afghanistan’s breadbasket… that still wouldn’t make it strategic.

anan September 25, 2009 at 9:26 pm

M Shannon, Kabul, the West and North matter the the ANA and GIRoA. They would fight like heck for them. But they wont’ fight like heck for most of Kandahar, Helmand and Kunar provinces. We should only super embed or partner with ANSF that are committed to fighting like heck for a part of Afghanistan.

Zarathustra September 26, 2009 at 2:01 am
DE Teodoru October 4, 2009 at 7:52 pm

There is this neocon notion that it’s never too late because you can always nuke the area if you have to. Kilcullen or Reidel, I can’t right now recall which book, shows a picture of a fortified Taliban position where, I think, three guys were hiding and some 8 JDAMS were dumped from the air to dislodge them and they were still firing, only to sneak out on their own. Well, imagine what that operation cost; can we as a BROKE nation afford all this warfare a la Brooks/McChrystal or would we do better investing in cash for clonkers? Recently Brooks on PBS spoke of competition between the two wars and domestic affairs. As a survivor of 9/11 I certainly would not want a repeat event. But are we spending capital in the best place by listening to Brooks– remember that he wants full metal jaket in Iraq still? Totally aside from the fate of Afghans– we had no qualms even cutting ARVN off in logisitics after US left per Kennedy Amendment– is America like Rome in the Germanic forests losing what it has precious little of? I can tell you that the Kagan case on the surge is now up against Tom Rick’s new account of the unravelling, a case well made by many other authors while his “surge” book seemed not to, McMasters included. Do we or do we not– WITH AN EYE TO *OUR* NATIONAL fututre– set a limit on the blood and treasure we’ll invest in Afghnaistan? Lastly, if we pull out, wouldn’t Shanghai Accord nations (most are so called “observers” but really full particiants) HAVE to step in to prevent Taliban victory? China has been quietly leaking nuclear technology all over the “Third World” so as to defuse our retaliatory aim, sort of a high-tech Maoist: “one, two three….many revolutions” with nukes instead of guerrillas. It would be nice to see it stuck cutting off Taliban rather than making deals with it as it had since 1970s.

anan October 4, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Don’t agree with you on China.

I have supported the Shanghai Accords since the 1990s. On September 12, 2001, at a meeting the Shanghai Accords countries met (with India and Iran and Russia); they issued a statement that they would support the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. {China also joined the statement.} More on this later.

Will explain the super embedded concept later.

M SHANNON September 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm

Why would we need to partner or super embed ( whatever that means) with ANSF units that are highly motivated? It’s been eight years. Our Afghans outnumber the Taliban, are supposedly supported by the vast majority of the population and have access to western cash, weapons and air power. NATO troops are required because most Afghans don’t give a hoot about anything outside their province and many outside their district.

We’ve been through this scenario before in Indo-China, Algeria, Viet Nam and Afghanistan 1979-92: motivated insurgents versus ambivilent indigenous forces and it has always ended the same way. The side with the greatest will always triumphs.

If our Afghans realy care and work to improve their government and ANSF we wouldn’t be needed at even half the strength we have now. If they don’t care whatever we do will be a waste.

anan September 26, 2009 at 3:08 pm

Shannon, we have held the ANSF back for 7 years, not letting them fight. We have been training them not to be a militia, but a professional military force. The ANA and ISAF cannot even arrest anyone.

If the ANSF were let loose, without having to worry about civil rights, the situation on the ground would change very fast. However, the ANSF would quickly become a lot less popular, much the way Taliban militias are disliked by Afghans.

In Algeria, the moderate muslims won. Do you think this is because they were better motivated? In Vietnam, the North defeated the South because they got more foreign aid than the South did. The south ran out of fuel, ammunition and spare parts. Hell the south couldn’t even afford to pay their own soldiers, who were forbidden to train to save money. The North was also more brutal, and killed a hundred thousand Southerners after the South surrendered. Why do you think this is relevant for Afghanistan?

Why do you think the ANA outnumbers to Taliban? I have heard some smart people argue otherwise. The good news is that most of these “Taliban” are in Pakistan right now. Moreover, the Taliban doesn’t hold territory in the majority of Afghanistan. Their goal is to disrupt, especially in non Pashtu and pro gov’t Pashtu areas.

Might you be biased by Nangarhar? Do you really think Kabul, the north and the West are the way Nangarhar province is? Do you find the NDS people you have met not committed?

I don’t know the answer to this question; how commited are the provincial ANP of Nangarhar to retain control over their province?

IntelTrooper September 26, 2009 at 5:22 pm

anan, are you asking about the police organized and under the command of provincial authorities, or the ANP of all Nangarhar as a whole? I would say that a significant number of ANP at the district level are complicit with the Taliban (and not that I blame them, if I was as poorly supported as they are I’d throw my lot in with the other side, too). At the provincial level, well, they are a lot closer to the “flag pole,” generally get to live in much safer conditions, have more support from CF, and are better motivated as a result.

dennis September 26, 2009 at 11:04 pm

as we wait for more information to come out. as we pull back to were ever.what would you think the talibon responds, or actions may be. any think they will move in closer than they are now.

David M September 28, 2009 at 9:44 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/28/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

M SHANNON September 28, 2009 at 10:03 am

This isn’t original but is it possible that bin Laden wants the US to escalate? That a major escalation (surge is the wrong term…it presumes a planned draw down) is what he wants… to economically bleed the US or is there a grander plan?

McChrystal isn’t actually asking for a reinforcement of 40,000 he’s asking for 90,000 because there will be 1.2 civilians for every US soldier. All of whom must be fed, armed, watered, amused and powered. And since the major source of enemy funding appears to be from extortion of NATO contractors and looting NATO supplies what is to stop them from cutting the LOCs instead of just taxing them? Could this be a trap? Could the ATGW and MANPADS that have been curiously missing from the enemy arsenal appear after the reinforcements have arrived?

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