Barack Obama and the Strategy That Must Not Be Named

September was another month of declining violence in Iraq, both for civilians and military personnel. Below are the pictures, and I’m guessing that Barack Obama would prefer that you don’t see them.

Once the progress in Iraq became all too obvious, even to Obama, he credited the success to the increase in troops, the troops themselves, the Sunni Awakening movements, and Muqtada al Sadr, but I haven’t heard him say a single word about the actual strategy that helped turn Iraq around. The surge in troop levels was only part of the overall plan.

We shouldn’t forget that when violence was at its very worst in Iraq, the freshman Senator from Illinois crafted a bill that would withdraw all combat brigades in less than sixteen months. The repercussions of such a withdrawal at such a time would have been staggering, in my opinion. It would’ve been a full-blown disaster.

Going forward, this issue cannot be more significant because Obama is proposing more troops for Afghanistan, yet he hasn’t said a thing about what those troops would actually do when they get there. “Get al Qaeda” isn’t a plan, it’s a hope, and we know hope is not a plan, even when words like “change” are thrown in. McCain has proposed a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy along the lines of the successful strategy employed in Iraq. Obama has just said “get al Qaeda”, or strengthen NATO, or something like that. I’ve looked at Obama’s issues, and he has no plan for Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons why I say that Obama is a military and foreign policy lightweight.

In Baghdad, residents are saying “we should go outside and live”. Yes, risks remain and al Qaeda can still pull off suicide terrorist attacks, but the city and nation are significantly safer. On the national political stage, progress is slower and more difficult to come by, but parliament passed a provinical elections law and Anbar province has been passed from coalition forces to the national government. A Defense Department report to Congress cites improving conditions but a still-fragile environment, which in turn affects the pace of conditions-based troop withdrawals.

But with Iraq quieted, the challenge going forward is Afghanistan-Pakistan. Al Qaeda is headquartered in the Pakistani frontier areas, and so are the more belligerent Taliban leaders. There’s little we can do in Pakistan except urge the new president to take control of his own country. We can help tribal leaders wrest control from Taliban and al Qaeda chieftans, but since those Pashtun leaders don’t have U.S. firepower behind them, the chances for success are questionable. One measure of the state of disarray in Pakistan are the increased number of suicide bombings. Since July 2007, nearly 1,200 have been killed.

But putting aside whiny defeatist remarks from British ambassadors, there’s plenty we can do in Afghanistan. It looks like General Petraeus is going to push for a comprehensive COIN strategy for Afghanistan, and it’s long overdue. As it stands now, we don’t have sufficient force projection, and we have European troops who refuse to engage in kinetic combat operations. This needs to change, and I hope it will. This Atlantic article is worth a full read, and I’ll excerpt some fair chunks:

The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is foundering because of the endemic failure to engage and protect rural villages, and to immunize them against insurgency. Many analysts have called for more troops inside the country, and for more effort to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries outside it, in neighboring Pakistan. Both developments would be welcome. Yet neither would solve the central problem of our involvement: the paradigm that has formed the backbone of the international effort since 2003—extending the reach of the central government—is in fact precisely the wrong strategy. National government has never much mattered in Afghanistan. Only once in its troubled history has the country had something like the system of strong central government that’s mandated by the current constitution. That was under the “Iron Emir,” Abdur Rehman, in the late 19th century, and Rehman famously maintained control by building towers of skulls from the heads of all who opposed him, a tactic unavailable to the current president, Hamid Karzai. Politically and strategically, the most important level of governance in Afghanistan is neither national nor regional nor provincial. Afghan identity is rooted in the woleswali: the districts within each province that are typically home to a single clan or tribe. Historically, unrest has always bubbled up from this stratum—whether against Alexander, the Victorian British, or the Soviet Union. Yet the woleswali are last, not first, in U.S. military and political strategy. Large numbers of U.S. and NATO troops are now heavily concentrated in Kabul, Kandahar, and other major cities. Thousands of U.S. personnel are stationed at Bagram Air Force Base, for instance, which is complete with Burger King, Dairy Queen, and a shopping center, but is hundreds of miles from the heart of the insurgency. Meanwhile, the military’s contact with villagers in remote areas where the Taliban operate is rare, typically brief, and almost always limited to daylight hours. The Taliban are well aware that the center of gravity in Afghanistan is the rural Pashtun district and village, and that Afghan army and coalition forces are seldom seen there. With one hand, the Taliban threaten tribal elders who do not welcome them. With the other, they offer assistance. (As one U.S. officer recently noted, they’re “taking a page from the Hezbollah organizations in Lebanon, with their own public works to assist the tribes in villages that are deep in the inaccessible regions of the country. This helps support their cause with the population, making it hard to turn the population in support of the Afghan government and the coalition.”)The rural Pashtun south has its own systems of tribal governance and law, and its people don’t want Western styles of either. But nor are they predisposed to support the Taliban, which espouses an alien and intolerant form of Islam, and goes against the grain of traditional respect for elders and decision by consensus. Re-empowering the village coun­cils of elders and restoring their community leadership is the only way to re-create the traditional check against the powerful political network of rural mullahs, who have been radicalized by the Taliban. But the elders won’t commit to opposing the Taliban if they and their families are vulnerable to Taliban torture and murder, and they can hardly be blamed for that. To reverse its fortunes in Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to fundamentally reconfigure its operations, creating small development and security teams posted at new compounds in every district in the south and east of the country. This approach would not necessarily require adding troops, although that would help—200 district-based teams of 100 people each would require 20,000 personnel, one-third of the 60,000 foreign troops currently in the country.

If this sounds familiar, it should. I’ve read similar material two years ago about Iraq, prior to the Republicans losing the majority in Congress. A key difference is that Afghanistan is more decentralized than Iraq, so it makes even more sense to move troops out of the few large forward operating bases and into many smallish combat outposts. The Marines in Helmand province have already demonstrated that this strategy works. For a good uptake on the current situation in Afghanistan, Herschel Smith has a comprehensive post on the subject.

(Hat tip to Engram for the graphs.)