Key in Afghanistan: Economy, Not Military

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- National security adviser James L. Jones told U.S. military commanders here last week that the Obama administration wants to hold troop levels here flat for now, and focus instead on carrying out the previously approved strategy of increased economic development, improved governance and participation by the Afghan military and civilians in the conflict.

The message seems designed to cap expectations that more troops might be coming, though the administration has not ruled out additional deployments in the future. Jones was carrying out directions from President Obama, who said recently, "My strong view is that we are not going to succeed simply by piling on more and more troops."

"This will not be won by the military alone," Jones said in an interview during his trip. "We tried that for six years." He also said: "The piece of the strategy that has to work in the next year is economic development. If that is not done right, there are not enough troops in the world to succeed."

Jones delivered his message after a 30-minute briefing by Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, who commands 9,000 Marines here, nearly half the new deployments Obama has sent to Afghanistan.

The day before in Kabul, Jones delivered the same message to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the new overall commander in Afghanistan. McChrystal has undertaken a 60-day review designed to address all the issues in the war. In addition, Jones has told Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that they should focus on implementing the current strategy, completing the review and getting more Afghan forces involved in the fight before requesting additional U.S. troops for Afghanistan.

The question of the force level for Afghanistan, however, is not settled and will probably be hotly debated over the next year. One senior military officer said privately that the United States would have to deploy a force of more than 100,000 to execute the counterinsurgency strategy of holding areas and towns after clearing out the Taliban insurgents. That is at least 32,000 more than the 68,000 currently authorized.

Nicholson and his senior staff, 20 Marine colonels and lieutenant colonels, sat around a table made of unfinished plywood the size of at least three ping-pong tables in a command headquarters that stands where there had been nothing but desert six months ago. The headquarters is located in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, 370 miles from the capital, Kabul, in a region known as the Desert of Death because of its scorching heat and choking fine, dustlike sand. The province is facing a rising and lethal Taliban insurgency.

During the briefing, Nicholson had told Jones that he was "a little light," more than hinting that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. "We don't have enough force to go everywhere," Nicholson said.

But Jones recalled how Obama had initially decided to deploy additional forces this year. "At a table much like this," Jones said, referring to the polished wood table in the White House Situation Room, "the president's principals met and agreed to recommend 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan." The principals -- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Mullen; and the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair -- made this recommendation in February during the first full month of the Obama administration. The president approved the deployments, which included Nicholson's Marines.

Soon after that, Jones said, the principals told the president, "oops," we need an additional 4,000 to help train the Afghan army.

"They then said, 'If you do all that, we think we can turn this around,' " Jones said, reminding the Marines here that the president had quickly approved and publicly announced the additional 4,000.

Now suppose you're the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?

Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF -- which in the military and elsewhere means "What the [expletive]?"

Nicholson and his colonels -- all or nearly all veterans of Iraq -- seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Jones, speaking with great emphasis to this group of Iraq veterans, said Afghanistan is not Iraq. "We are not going to build that empire again," he said flatly.

A Question Not Settled

Obama sent Jones last week to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to make an assessment and explain the president's thinking.

As a presidential candidate and as president, Obama stressed that the Afghan war was neglected in the Bush administration. In announcing the first additional 17,000 troops on Feb. 17, Obama said that "the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan" and that al-Qaeda "threatens America from its safe haven" in neighboring Pakistan.

"We don't need more U.S. forces," Nicholson finally told Jones. "We need more Afghan forces." It is a complaint Jones heard repeatedly. Jones and other officials said Afghanistan, and particularly its president, Hamid Karzai, have not mobilized sufficiently for their own war. Karzai has said Afghanistan is making a major effort in the war and is increasing its own forces as fast as possible.

In an interview, Nicholson said that in the six months he has been building Camp Leatherneck and brought 9,000 Marines to the base, not a single additional member of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) has been assigned to assist him. He said he needed "Afghanistan security forces -- all flavors," including soldiers, police, border patrol and other specialists.

The evening before the Jones meeting, a Marine was killed during a patrol in Now Zad, a town in Helmand where people had fled the fighting.

"If we had several ANA in Now Zad, we might not have lost that Marine," said one civilian official, noting that the Afghan army could supply the "eyes and ears" that were badly needed to sound warnings and scout on patrols. One senior U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan estimated that the military needs one member of the Afghan security forces for every 10 U.S. troops to operate safely and stabilize the area. That would mean Nicholson should have approximately 900 Afghans, and he effectively has none.

At the briefing for Jones, Nicholson pointed to the mission statement, which said that "killing the enemy is secondary." His campaign plan states, "Protect the populace by, with and through the ANSF," the Afghanistan National Security Forces, which makes the absence of the additional Afghans particularly galling to Nicholson.

Though the United States supplies most of the funding for the Afghan army, the force is controlled by the Defense Ministry. Jones said he would press Karzai and others to deploy more of the Afghan soldiers to work here in Helmand.

'The Razor's Edge'

Jones said repeatedly on this trip that the new strategy has three legs, all of which he said had to be dramatically improved: security; economic development and reconstruction; and governance by the Afghans under the rule of law.

"The president realizes it's on the razor's edge," Jones said, suggesting not only a difficult, dangerous time but also a situation that could cut either way. "And he's worried that others don't."

The National Security Council is developing a series of measurements to assess the effectiveness of the strategy and the capability of the Afghan government and Afghan security forces. This is expected to be presented to Congress soon.

Jones made it clear in his visit to Afghanistan that it is a new era and that Obama will not automatically give the military commanders whatever force levels they request -- the frequent practice of President George W. Bush in the Iraq war.

"This is a decisive moment," Jones told U.S. military leaders, diplomats and the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan, "a strategic moment, and we better get it right."

In early 2007, when Gen. David H. Petraeus took command in Iraq, he declared that the situation, nearly four years into the war, was "hard" but "not hopeless." Jones and his staff use similar words to describe Afghanistan today.

The U.S. military and the 32,000 other NATO troops are engaged in a robust effort to improve security in Afghanistan, but insurgent attacks have escalated, reaching an all-time high of more than 400 attacks during one week in May.

Though that does not rival the violence in Iraq, which peaked at 1,600 attacks in one week during the summer of 2007, it represents a trend that has alarmed U.S. military leaders.

'The Golden 500'

It is a 25-minute helicopter ride from Camp Leatherneck to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, where Jones met with the leaders of a provincial reconstruction team, a unit of about 160 British, U.S., Afghan and other civilians and military officers working to rebuild the economy, improve security and increase effective government.

In a meeting, the reconstruction team leaders told Jones that there had been 58 makeshift-bomb attacks in the past week in the province. They stressed that the biggest problem was "Afghan capacity" because the government had not provided sufficient Afghan military, police and civilians.

The British, who lead the team, said the key to progress in Helmand, the largest Afghan province with 1.2 million people, has been provincial Gov. Gulab Mangal. They said that in the past 15 months, he had moved on nearly all fronts to modernize, improve governance and launch a war on corruption.

The British have identified what they call "the golden 500" -- government and other officials beginning with Mangal whom they want to stay in their positions in Helmand so progress can continue.

U.S. and British officials believe that Karzai, who is running for reelection in August, plans to replace Mangal. To ensure his reelection, one official said, Karzai is making deals with a number of Afghan politicians.

Jones and the British voiced their distress at the possibility that Mangal would be ousted, and Jones promised to intervene personally with Karzai. As a first step, Jones called in about a dozen Afghan reporters and sat down on a couch next to Mangal for a news conference at team headquarters. Mangal, 52, is a soft-spoken leader with black hair and a neatly trimmed beard.

First, Jones publicly embraced Mangal's leadership and said he was there "on behalf of the president, who is committed to a new strategy. I know of no place in Afghanistan that has more potential."

He said "the cornerstone is the Afghan people, the Afghan military and the Afghan police," adding, "We want to make sure Afghans control their own destiny."

Jones noted that he had been coming to Afghanistan since 2003. He was NATO commander when the alliance took over the Afghanistan war. "I know what to do," Jones said glancing at Mangal.

In a brief interview, Mangal said of Karzai, "He sent me as a soldier to Helmand province." Mangal noted that he had previously been a governor in two other provinces. Did he hope to continue? Mangal nodded yes.

After retiring as NATO commander in 2007, Jones became co-chairman of the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. In 2008, the council issued a report that began, "Make no mistake, the international community is not winning in Afghanistan."

Flying back from his three-country trip Friday night, Jones cited the report and said most of its bleak conclusions still apply -- insufficient reconstruction, weak economic development, the continuing "epidemic in opium production" and "disorganized, uncoordinated and at present insufficient" international efforts.

"We are doing the same things well and the same things poorly," he said. It was not mission impossible, he said, causing him to feel "urgency but not panic."

Researcher Evelyn Duffy contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company