Five Things You Need to Know About the Afghanistan War Review

by Joshua Foust on 12/18/2010 · 10 comments

My column for PBS this week focuses on the Obama Review.

As an example, how does one measure the metrics laid out for Afghanistan? The U.S. position is to deny safe haven to al Qaeda and deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the Afghan government. The U.S.’s means to accomplish this is to “degrade” the Taliban insurgency so the Afghan government can “build sufficient capacity” so al Qaeda stays away and the Taliban doesn’t threaten the state. In effect, the U.S. strategy is to delay and push back the Taliban just long enough so the Afghan government can do it on its own.

That is not really an end state. Nor is it clear why the only means to prevent al Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan and to keep the Taliban from taking over the government is a massive military campaign focused only in a few provinces.

Read, and comment.

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– 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 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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TJM December 18, 2010 at 10:46 am

In the paragraph under the heading “A unitary enemy” you begin with the statement: “A critical problem in the review is the continued descriptions of ‘the Taliban insurgency’ as a single thing that can be addressed with the military.”

You backed up that statement and I agree with it. But I would add that if you replace “the military” with “negotiations” you have the same problem. I’d be curious how you reconcile that paragraph with your prior post: A Call to Reason for Afghanistan.

Joshua Foust December 18, 2010 at 11:11 am

I should have perhaps made it explicit I didn’t agree with every single detail in that letter, but I do agree with its intent. I’m working on a longer post detailing the fault lines, trigger points, and places for concrete action that should address those concerns.

M Shannon December 18, 2010 at 2:13 pm

The key to understanding how and why we got to where we are is that no organization on our side has a great interest in ending the war which would presumably see a massive reduction of cash, positions and influence.

A sudden and successful end to the war would be disastrous for the GOA, contractors, the military, all of the government agencies and many NGOs. An expensive stalemate with a reduction in friendly casualties (2006 levels would be fine) to keep the cash flowing and the need for lots of expat soldiers and PSCs is what’s wanted. Just enough combat to bloody the militaries (US & NATO) and justify the gongs, new gear and extra senior officers without putting too big a strain on the forces.

TJM December 18, 2010 at 11:18 pm

Those are some eye-catching assertions. If you have evidence to back it up, this could be quite a news story.

JYD December 19, 2010 at 12:40 am


While not claiming to speak for the AfPak policy makers, I’ll take a shot at your following poser:

A key prerequisite for a successful fight against AQ in Pakistan is to persuade Pak’s military-intel establishment to decisively abandon jihadists as a policy tool. It is the Pakmil’s continued dalliance with these actors that is behind that country’s passive-aggressive behavior i.e. episodic cooperation accompanied by subterfuge and even outright help to jihadists killing US troops.

Since the “with us or against us” threats after 9/11, US policy makers have tacitly chosen not to use the ultimate leverage against Pakistan to force it to stop supporting the Afghan Taliban or the Haqqanis.

Short of issuing an ultimatum, the only thing that could change the Pakistani establishment’s mind with respect to the Afg Taliban and the Haqqanis is a demonstrated US determination to never allow the core elements of these groups to come to power in Afghanistan.

In other words, having 150K+ troops for 3-4 more years is the only way we can persuade the Paks that they cannot bet on the other side with the hopes that their proxies are months from taking Kabul.

Having enough US presence on the ground in Afghanistan to inflict enough pain on these proxies, combined with diplomatic, economic and multilateral carrots and sticks is the only “non-ultimatum/sanctions” way to make Pakistan do the necessary things.

BTW, Al Qaeda has expanded and metastized into something larger, amorphous yet more potent, in its years inside Pakistan. Were we to cut and run now, this would not merely relocate to Afghanistan but EXPAND into that country.

Joe Biden’s Counter Terror approach against THAT threat would be like peeing into a wild fire. After all, massive drone strikes and secret Special Forces raids did not stop the Times Square bomber or the numerous recent close calls. Whackamole simply cannot work and no responsible US President can or will cut corners to that extent.

P.S: See this excellent piece by a Pakistani reporter for more insight on the AQ threat in Pak

Boris Sizemore December 19, 2010 at 10:55 am

Policy Review-Exactly what it is not.

To call this a Policy Review is to miss the point entirely. It is not a review. It is a rehash/remix of each and every message sent by DOD, DOS, and the White House over the year.

It is a symphony of badly clanging notes pleasing only in sections to each ear for which it was written and ignores purposely the failure of both the Surge and all of our efforts in 2010.

2010 was a success for the Islamic Insurgency in all areas. They have fully absorbed both the Surge and found brilliant manners to actually lay a war of desgaste(waste) against the troops bunkered ineffectively in FOBs and COBs. The soldiers are essentially surrounded and each and every day they await a potential injury. The insurgents gifted by Petraeus enjoy freedom of movement and the daily choice of which ISAF/ANSF target to hit.

In 2010 ISAF managed to lose over 30% of the Nation to a renewed insurgency by focusing narrowly on Kandahar and Helmand. Sitting thousands of soldiers and spending billions on small areas like Nawa or Arghandeb does nothing to revese to expansion of the Insurgents in the North and West. Selective headhunting by night assault teams has not diminished the forces arrayed against ISAF or GoIRA in any large terms.

A real review would have mentioned these unhappy facts.

We still run the war and the Afghans watch from the sidelines. We have been unwilling to pass the baton to them and wait until the last minute to do so.

Petraeus in his role as Imperial Leader refuses to see that the Afghanization necessarily implies that HE steps to the background for the good of our soldiers and the Afghans. In this ego developed mistake he has actually done more to help the Insurgents and damage the Afghan government than one year of passive activity would have done.

Each and every action done by ISAF has hurt them for next year and instead of advocating a wide ranging change, this so called review has done nothing.

2011 is shaping up to be worse again than last year, and may indeed be the year we see our first Dien Bien Phu action, probably in Kandahar or in Gardez or those areas. Our failure will be quite literal by that time and next year’s review will have no choice but to advocate larger change than this year’s non sequitor dared.

anan December 19, 2010 at 3:40 pm

Boris, the ANSF are already de facto in the lead in most of Afghanistan, where ISAF de facto follows their lead, if imperfectly.

To take one example of where the GIRoA and ANSF are de facto in the lead, we can look at the North.

209th ANA Corps now has 11 combat infantry battalions in the fight, and the number grows by another combat infantry battalion every 3 months. The ANA [which has OMLTs from 10 countries] is fighting its own war in the North. They win most of their engagements with the various Taliban factions and warlords they fight. Unfortunately they don’t break up into bluks or platoons often enough.

The AUP also fight their own separate war in the North with 1 US brigade assigned solely to mentor them [in other words this US brigade has no battlespace responsibilities and few other missions.]

NDS is also fighting its own war in the North.

In addition their are anti Taliban militias fighting in the North.

The fact that 209th ANA, NDS, and the Northern AUP are fighting their own separate wars isn’t Petraeus’ fault. It is Karzai’s fault. Only he can force his own forces to work together.

“2011 is shaping up to be worse again than last year, and may indeed be the year we see our first Dien Bien Phu action, probably in Kandahar or in Gardez or those areas.”

If the Mullah Omar centric portions of the QST try a major offensive in Kandahar, they will find 11 ANA combat infantry battalions + 6 or more ANCOP combat battalions + 3 K Canadians + 10 K US Army eager to fight them. The QST would be decimated. The Haqqanis will become the most important Taliban leaders in South and Central Asia . . . which they are already fast becoming.

Why would Mullah Omar allow this kind of mistake? Why wouldn’t he focus on areas with less ANSF/ISAF? Does he really want to be sidelined by Sirajuddin?

Siraj might try a major offensive somewhere in Loya Paktia, although probably not in Gardez, Paktia itself. If he does, will likely use large numbers of retired military from another country, IIyas Kashmiri, LeT, TTP, TNSM, IJU, IMU, Uighurs.

But Siraj would find 203rd ANA Corps, Khost provincial AUP, and the Rakkasans fighting him hard in Loya Paktia.

I think Siraj would rather focus on Logar, Wardak, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan.

Don Anderson December 22, 2010 at 2:53 am

Oh No…Major General Anan of the Afghan Army is back to teach us the ropes…What will we learn now?

Everything is fine, because we can count the Kandaks of the 205th!!


Good analysis too, just what the French said before Dien Bien Phu..

Mullah Omar Centric …my butt …

Marjah is a victory too. You can’t forget that. Took almost one year when they said it would take two months. No problem. We have forever it seems in Anan World.

Anan is back in action. He can read minds you know…Siraj is a close confident it seems.

Thank You General all is clear…

Shah Mojadedi December 22, 2010 at 3:26 am

Yes it is true Major General Anan knows exactly what his good friend Siraj (on a first name basis) is going to do. He can read minds and count too.


Sons of Helmand. Safe in Sangin and Marjah too. Marines Marines Marines. You know.

11+6+3=Always equals nonsense.

M Shannon December 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I think that after nine years the fact that the only Dari word the vast, vast majority of journalists has learned is kandak says a lot. Has not one said “Ok army PR guy battalion is kandak, what’s the word for company?”

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