Key commanders have their say on Afghanistan

Walter Pincus
Reporter March 7, 2012

Two senior American military commanders spent the past two days putting into context recent negative news about the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. At the same time, they tried to get members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees to realize that U.S. units will remain in that country long after combat troops depart in 2014.

A question asked on both days: “Should the U.S. modify its Afghan strategy in the wake of those six U.S. soldiers being killed by Afghan soldiers between Feb. 23 and March 1?”

“Treachery has existed as long as there’s been warfare, and there’s always been a few people that you couldn’t trust” was the way Marine Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Central Command, put it. On Tuesday, he told the Senate panel: “I’m one of those who has slept peacefully under Afghan boys guarding me back in 2001. No force is perfect.”

On Wednesday, Mattis told House members that the U.S. military relationship with Afghan troops “should not be defined by the occasional tragedies.” He went on to say, “More Afghan boys have died as a result of this sort of thing in a society that has been turned upside down by the Soviets some decades ago. . . . The Kalashnikov culture found its way inside that society and violence has become too often the norm. It’s one of the things we’re trying to turn back.”

But, he added, “in Afghanistan right now, it has not stopped us in our tracks.”

Adm. William McRaven, head the U.S. Special Operations Command, told the senators that his troops “have not had any what we refer to as ‘green-on-blue’ incidents [Afghan soldiers attacking U.S. or NATO personnel] with respect to our partner relationships.”

Another question that came up several times was President Hamid Karzai’s repeated objection to Special Forces night raids on Afghan villages in order to capture targeted, high-value Taliban leaders.

McRaven told the senators that the raids are “essential” and that the high-value individuals “generally bed down at night. They are much more targetable at night. And I think if you look at it tactically, what you find is the Afghans are actually much safer if we target an individual at night because there aren’t so many people out and about in the little villages.”

He also said that Karzai has been told that Afghan forces have taken the lead on night raids. “They are the ones that do the call-outs, asking the people to come out of the compounds. They are the first ones through the door. They are the ones that do all of the sensitive site exploitation,” McRaven explained.

On Wednesday, McRaven told House members that “sometimes for political reasons” Afghan politicians will object to night raids, but that for the most part people approve of them because they remove unwanted people. Mattis added that for Karzai, the raid issue “cuts to the heart of [the Afghans’] self image” and remains “one of the very difficult issues that we have to sort out between us.”

Mattis said that recruitment and training of Afghan security forces is progressing and that the goal of 352,000 will “be reached in 60 days,” ahead of earlier plans.

At both hearings, questions were raised about the burden being placed on Special Operations Forces as regular forces are reduced by 22,000 this year and leadership in fighting the Taliban is taken over by Afghan forces. Special Operations Forces make up 8 percent of the forces in Afghanistan and “may increase by some small amount” as 2014 approaches, McRaven said. He also made clear that Special Operations Forces will be in Afghanistan after 2014, working with the Afghans on counterterrorism and overseeing the training of security forces.

The Special Operations Forces that remain will need regular Army troops to clear routes of makeshift bombs and pilot helicopters for medical evacuation of the wounded. And some Air Force elements will be needed to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support.

A Special Operations Forces program that still has a way to go is the Village Stability Operations/Afghan Local Police initiative. With help from other coalition elements, about 11,000 local police have been recruited, vetted and trained with the overall goal of 30,000, McRaven told the committees. He said the stability operation is underway in 57 districts.

The work is being done in partnership with Afghan commando and special forces troops.

McRaven said that it takes 18 months to get a village from planning through funding of local police units, but as they are established, U.S. Special Operations Forces go on to the next site. U.S. and Afghan special forces then share oversight of the units.

New solicitations call for the construction of two Special Operations Forces facilities at Kandahar Airfield. One is for a Joint Operation Center, the other a Special Operations Forces command and control facility. Each could cost up to $10 million, be finished in mid- to late 2013 and support “operations in southern and western Afghanistan,” according to the Corps of Engineers solicitations.

One of the more interesting answers came Wednesday from Mattis, when he was asked whether the failure to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan was a “showstopper” for U.S. operations in Afghanistan as many politicians and analysts have stated.

“It’s not,” Mattis said. He pointed to the progress that the Pakistani army had made in the past two years and how it has “thrown the Taliban back into the mountains.” He pointed out that the Pakistanis “continue to take casualties” and that havens in some areas exist “because the Pakistan army is stretched.”

But he concluded that, while the United States at times has a “problematic . . . relationship with Pakistan . . . there’s a lot of common ground around that we use — that we operate off of together.”

Too bad Democrats and Republicans don’t have the same kind of approach.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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