By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama intends to sign off on Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but the incoming administration does not anticipate that the Iraq-like "surge" of forces will significantly change the direction of a conflict that has steadily deteriorated over the past seven years.
Instead, Obama's national security team expects that the new deployments, which will nearly double the current U.S. force of 32,000 (alongside an equal number of non-U.S. NATO troops), will help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy for what Obama has called the "central front on terror."
With conditions on the ground worsening by nearly every yardstick last year -- including record levels of extremist attacks and U.S. casualties, and the expansion of the conflict across Pakistan and into India -- Obama's campaign pledge to "finish the job" in Afghanistan with more troops, money and diplomacy has encountered the daunting reality of a job that has barely begun.
Since the November election, Obama has been flooded with dire assessments of the war. A National Intelligence Estimate warned that a reconstituted al-Qaeda leadership, dug into the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistani border, continues to plan attacks against the United States and Europe. The Bush White House delivered a major review of Afghanistan last month that echoed that judgment, acknowledged that a modern Afghan democracy -- stable and free of extremists -- may be both unattainable and unaffordable, and said that the United States may have to accept trade-offs among priorities.
"We have no strategic plan. We never had one," a senior U.S. military commander said of the Bush years. Obama's first order of business, he said, will be to "explain to the American people what the mission is" in Afghanistan. The officer is one of a number of active-duty and retired officers, senior Obama team members and Bush administration officials interviewed for this article, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the presidential transition.
The military is as concerned about the mission of additional troops as it is about the size of the force and is looking for Obama to resolve critical internal debates, including the relative merits of conducting conventional combat vs. targeted guerrilla war. With limited resources, should the military concentrate on eliminating a Taliban presence -- a task for which most think the United States and its allies will never have enough troops -- or on securing large population areas?
What is the plan for training an Afghan army expected to double in size -- from 84,000 troops -- in the next few years, when less than half of current U.S. trainer slots are filled? How will resources be shifted to the State Department and civilian development experts Obama has said must assume more responsibility? Can the new president do what his predecessor could not and impose order and a shared strategy on the 41 nations and countless international and nongovernmental organizations operating in Afghanistan? Will he follow through on pledges for more diplomacy with Iran, to the west of Afghanistan, and a more aggressive plan for Pakistan to the east?
"This is not a Shinseki versus Rumsfeld debate between 125,000 or 500,000 U.S. troops," a Pentagon official said, referring to the differing views of then-Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shinseki and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld before the Iraq invasion in 2003. "It's a real debate about what the correct answer is."
Obama has offered few public comments on Afghanistan since the election. "We haven't seen the kinds of infrastructure improvements; we haven't seen the security improvements; we haven't seen the reduction in narco-trafficking; we haven't seen a reliance on rule of law in Afghanistan that would make people feel confident that the central government can, in fact, deliver on its promises," he said last month on NBC's "Meet the Press." "We've got to ramp up our development approach," he said, without providing details.
The president-elect set out a "very limited" objective of ensuring that Afghanistan "cannot be used as a base to launch attacks against the United States." He cited the need for "more effective military action" -- even as he warned of fierce Afghan resistance to the presence of foreign troops -- and said the "number one goal" is to stop al-Qaeda.
In the current vacuum, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have made their own assessments and recommendations, as has Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of both U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the Central Command chief, who has regional responsibility for the Middle East and much of South Asia, has set up what a Pentagon official only half-jokingly described as a "shadow government," assembling a team of more than 200 military and civilian experts to supply him with a comprehensive plan for the region by mid-February.
The Army is already spending $1.1 billion to provide facilities for additional troops in Afghanistan and plans to start an additional $1.3 billion in construction next year. But it remains unclear what kinds of forces, with what assignments, will be sent beyond the 10th Mountain Division's 3rd Combat Brigade, departing this month. Smaller "enabler" units with helicopters and other equipment are also readying for deployment, and significant training must begin soon for other units selected to go during the spring and summer. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, has pressed for a major Marine presence in Afghanistan once the Marine force has drawn down substantially from Iraq.
On the civilian and economic development front, Obama officials have been noncommittal about a $2.5 billion supplemental spending plan for 2009 that the State Department hopes the new administration will quickly submit to Congress for approval. Although Obama co-sponsored a Senate bill to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan to $7.5 billion over five years, introduced last summer by his vice president-elect, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the proposal never left the chamber.
"At some point," said a retired senior officer with long Afghan experience and ties to the Obama team, "this is going to have to converge into a set of options and a decision on a strategy instead of 40 different ones. . . . It's going to require a much more complex assessment by Obama. One of the problems is you don't really know what kind of forces, and how many, until you know what strategy you're going to have."
With its "Day One" plate already overflowing with the economic crisis at home, the Hamas-Israel war in the Gaza Strip and Obama's stated goal of closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, the new administration says it will not be rushed on Afghanistan. "We are taking a long, hard look at these issues now," a transition adviser said.
The parameters of a new strategy are unlikely to emerge before early April, when Afghanistan and Pakistan will top the agenda at a NATO summit in France. By presenting its NATO allies with a comprehensive plan and demonstrating the leadership to implement it, Obama hopes to capitalize on his overwhelming popularity in Europe with requests for increased military and financial contributions.
"What they've got to say is 'Okay, if you love Obama, show us how much,' " said another retired senior military officer.
Some senior members of the new administration are already deeply knowledgeable about Afghanistan and Pakistan, including holdover Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, Obama's national security adviser, commanded NATO when it took over the coalition of international forces in Afghanistan in 2003 and last year chaired a major Atlantic Council study that concluded that "the international community is not winning in Afghanistan."
Jones remains committed to the study's recommendation of a complete reappraisal of the war; a campaign plan that integrates all security, reconstruction and governance efforts; and a regional approach that includes diplomatic collaboration with Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia and China.
But other designated policymakers have been less intimately involved with the issue, including Secretary of State-designee Hillary Rodham Clinton; retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair, the nominee for director of national intelligence; and Leon E. Panetta, Obama's choice to head the CIA. There is a deep-seated belief among Obama advisers that no matter how many pre-inauguration diplomatic, military and intelligence briefings they receive, they will not have a full picture of the depth of the problems in Afghanistan or the options for fixing them until Obama reaches the Oval Office.