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A plan in need of clarity

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By Jim Webb
Friday, December 4, 2009

I have great regard for the careful process the Obama administration employed in its efforts to define a new approach for the long-standing military commitment in Afghanistan and to put an operational framework in place for our responsible withdrawal. I intend, nevertheless, to continue to call on the administration to clarify to the American public and Congress how it defines success and how we reach an end point.

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Since early 2009, I have said repeatedly that the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan must proceed based on four considerations: (1) the fragility of the Afghan government; (2) whether building a national army of considerable scale is achievable; (3) whether an increased U.S. military presence will ultimately have a positive effect in the country, or whether we will be seen as an occupying force; and (4) the linkage of events in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the coming weeks I intend to examine the administration's plan to see how it addresses these criteria and how it will affect our troops.

Since the president's address Tuesday, there has been much discussion of the date that the United States will begin to draw down military forces and transfer security responsibility. Just as important is a focus on creating the conditions to enable this transfer of responsibility. The administration has not defined them with sufficient clarity. Our strategy is sound only if framed with clearly defined and attainable goals, an understandable end point and a regional perspective. We must also avoid the inherent risks of allowing our success in Afghanistan to be defined by events that are largely beyond our control.

When U.S. troops entered Afghanistan in 2001, no true central government had existed in that country since 1979. The agreements reached in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001 led to a new constitution, an interim government and the national election of 2004. The agreements also gave considerable power to a central government in a country that is very disparate and historically far removed from the concept of central governance. The result today is a weak, fragile government in Kabul whose power on paper is far greater than in reality. It is plagued by a lack of capacity and rampant corruption. Many observers say that power needs to be devolved to a more decentralized form of governance consistent with tribal realities to achieve the Afghan government's long-term viability.

We are ramping up deployment to about 100,000 troops, along with tens of thousands of American contractors and civilians, to implement a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. This greatly enlarged presence runs the risk, well rooted in Afghanistan's history of resisting foreign influence, that the United States will be perceived as an occupying force instead of a presence seeking to assist Afghans in improving their stability and development.

Another key question that remains to be answered is: How do we define our enemy in Afghanistan? When we talk about the Taliban, we interchange terms that aren't particularly interchangeable. Three different types of actors are associated with the Taliban. First came those in a vicious government that the United States assisted in removing. Second, there is an ideologically charged group that operates principally in Pakistan, associated with the forces of international terrorism. Third, we have a separate group, presumably growing with the greatest speed, that is viewed by many Afghans as something of a regional militia defending local interests and that doesn't particularly want to threaten U.S. interests outside Afghanistan.

I have said consistently that countering international terrorism requires highly maneuverable forces able to strike an intrinsically mobile enemy. The departure of al-Qaeda from Iraq and, in large measure, from Afghanistan demonstrates why more maneuverable U.S. forces are to be favored against mobile international terrorist movements. In each instance, al-Qaeda relocated to other areas, including Pakistan and the Horn of Africa. Our military must retain the same maneuverability.

On the personnel front, our active-duty military has been deployed repeatedly for combat operations since 2001. Guard and reserve components also have deployed at levels not envisioned when the all-volunteer force was introduced. We are in uncharted territory in terms of the long-term effects these deployments are having on the well-being of our men and women in uniform, especially the Army and Marine Corps. I introduced dwell-time legislation nearly three years ago to ensure that we achieved a better balance in deployment cycles with a minimum interval before follow-on deployments. The new commitment of some 30,000 U.S. troops will put additional strains on our forces and their families. I plan to press the administration on this point to ensure that we are more vigilant in safeguarding the welfare of our men and women in uniform.

The writer, a Democrat from Virginia who was secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he is chairman of the subcommittee on personnel.



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