Afghanistan: The long haul?


The long haul?

From the Washington Post, two connected stories: President-imminent Obama prepares for a substantially increased military deployment in Afghanistan with a construction boom nobody could miss — as one example from my recent travels, the military hospital at Kandahar has tripled in capacity since 2006, but it’s about to triple again — but he’s actually not sure what his plan is yet.

The less charitable interpretation is that Obama is putting 30,000 heavily-armed carts in front of his horse. The more patient interpretation, which I’m willing to buy pending further evidence, is that he wants to improve his tactical position while he does some (overdue) strategic thinking. From the second article:

“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?

This strategic rethink is underway and has been for weeks, in Washington, Brussels, Kabul, Kandahar and elsewhere. Kabul and Kandahar were like Grand Central Station when I was there: two Canadian deputy ministers had arrived just ahead of me, U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates landed at Kandahar about an hour after I left, and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Gen. Bantz Craddock (heir to a post once held by Wesley Clark, John Shalikashvili, Al Haig, and Dwight D. Eisenhower), came roaring through the Kandahar PRT on a 10-minute visit, randomly shaking my hand on his way to a rooftop briefing. Joe Biden was in Afghanistan on the weekend; his meeting with Hamid Karzai apparently went better than their last encounter several months ago, which ended after eight minutes with Biden storming out, muttering “I don’t have time for this crap.” (Karzai was faring little better with Republicans last year. “McCain sandblasted him,” a U.S. official told us cheerfully.)

Obama will have his “ask” ready to present to his allies, by the latest accounts, in time for the NATO summit in France in April. I’m not sure I would recommend that Canada’s prime minister spend the time between now and then issuing confusing, contradictory, veiled, passive-aggressive pronouncements that neither reveal nor permit careful thinking on the future of Canada’s largest fighting military deployment since Korea. Unless I wanted to seem prescient.

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