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The Forgotten War

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/soldiercrop.jpgA CH-47 Chinook helicopter flies over Kabul, Afghanistan. (Department of Defense photo by Cherie A. Thurlby)

As U.S. military casualties mount in Afghanistan, a retired four-star Army general, who just returned from reviewing the six-plus-year war effort, said the country “is in misery” and describes the war as “a 25-year campaign.”

In a memo written for the Social Sciences Dept. at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on July 30, Barry McCaffrey, a division commander during the 1991 Gulf War and drug czar under President Bill Clinton, writes that there is “no unity of command” — either among U.S. and foreign coalition troops, or even among U.S. troops. Political and economic contributions to nation-building efforts are an additional source of disunity. Unity of command, in which all forces report to a single commander, is a basic principle of military strategy, without which military campaigns are rarely successful. McCaffrey writes that U.S. forces have two regional commands: European Command, which is also the NATO military command, and Central Command, which directs U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

“A sensible coordination of all political and military elements of the Afghan theater of operations does not exist,” McCaffrey writes. “There is no single military headquarters tactically commanding all U.S. forces.”

The deterioration of security in Afghanistan this year has propelled what was known as “the forgotten war” to the foreign-policy fore — with both Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, and Sen. John McCain, the likely GOP nominee, pledging to increase the U.S. troop presence there.

There are now approximately 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared to about 140,000 in Iraq, a far smaller and somewhat less populous nation. According to an Associated Press tally, 2,300 people — most said to be insurgents — have died violent deaths in Afghanistan this year; and attacks on the volatile eastern border with Pakistan are already up 40 percent from last year. Commanders on the ground have requested at least three additional combat brigades — roughly 10,000 troops — but military overstretch and the demands of the Iraq war makes it unlikely that a significant troop increase will occur this year.

The unity-of-command issue is hardly the only problem McCaffrey identifies. He writes that while “we cannot allow ourselves to fail” in Afghanistan, the war is “generational” in duration, and the U.S. lacks a military structured to fight wars of that duration. “Many of these troops and their leaders through general officer level are on their 4th or more combat deployments since 9/11,’” McCaffrey writes. “We have suffered 36,000 U.S. killed and wounded. Their families are getting tired. The country is not at war. The Armed Forces and the CIA are at war. We are at the point of breaking faith with our troops.”

Robert Mackey, a retired Army officer, agrees with McCaffrey. “Simple fact is that our armed forces are not set up to fight a long-term war of any size at all with an all-volunteer force,” Mackey said in an e-mail. “That isn’t what the [all-volunteer] force was designed or expected to do. It was supposed to be a stop-gap until mobilization back in the bad old days of the Soviet hordes pouring though Fulda. So, the administration after 9-11 sent the populace shopping and threw the Old Regulars on the Frontier to stop the Sioux. And then decided that invading Canada would be a peachy idea, but only using the troops on hand.”

But Jack Devine, a longtime CIA official who rose to the position of acting director before retiring in the 1990s, sounded a note of caution over a war of that length. “I know McCaffrey,” Devine said. “He’s a man of solid judgment. He’s just back [from Afghanistan], so there’s a certain ring of credibility to his observations. Unfortunately, I think we have to tough it out [in Afghanistan] until we find bin Laden, but then my personal recommendation would be to find a good way to extricate ourselves and reduce our presence to a minimum.”

McCaffrey’s paper was first reported by the Small Wars Journal blog on Aug. 1. McCaffrey himself could not be reached for comment. A West Point spokesman said that McCaffrey was no longer affiliated with the school. Neither Col. Michael Meese, chairman of the Dept. of Social Sciences at West Point, nor Col. Cindy Jebb, responded to emailed questions about McCaffrey’s assessment.

McCaffrey praised Defense Secretary Robert Gates for deploying a small additional contingent of U.S. soldiers and Marines to Afghanistan, noting the additional force would “temporarily halt the slide into total warfare.” However, he contended that NATO partner nations were not adding forces.

For the last two months, the U.S. military has opted to extend Marine tours in Afghanistan rather than redeploy forces from Iraq, where troop deaths per month have been dwarfed by the Afghanistan war for the last 90 days. At the Pentagon on Tuesday, spokesman Geoff Morrell did not commit to new Afghanistan deployments before 2009, despite the requests of commanders. “There are ongoing discussions about what else can be done to meet the needs of the commanders in the field,” Morrell said.

McCaffrey’s report emphasized that winning the war in Afghanistan would require more than just the military. “The atmosphere of terror cannot be countered by relying mainly on military means,” he writes. He chided the Bush administration, partner governments, and the United Nations for failing to develop an integrated political-economic-military plan for success. “There is no clear political governance relationship organizing the government of Afghanistan, the United Nations and its many Agencies, NATO and its political and military presence, the 26 Afghan deployed allied nations, the hundreds of [non-governmental organizations, and private entities and contractors."

Yet McCaffrey still asserted that 2009 would be "the year of decision" in Afghanistan. His predictions were bleak. "The Taliban and a greatly enhanced foreign fighter presence will: strike decisive blows against selected NATO units; try to erase the [Pakistani Federal Administered Tribal Areas] and Baluchi borders with Afghanistan; try to sever the road networks and stop the construction of new roads (Route # 1 — the Ring Road from Kabul to Kandahar is frequently now interdicted); and try to strangle and isolate the capital,” McCaffrey wrote. “Without more effective and non-corrupt Afghan political leadership at province and district level, Afghanistan may become a failed state hosting foreign terrorist communities with global ambitions. Afghan political elites are focused more on the struggle for power than governance. ”

Andrew Exum, who led infantry and special operations units in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004, praised McCaffrey’s report, but said it might not be the most helpful guide to future strategy. “Gen. McCaffrey’s reports from the field are always must-reads, because they’re clear and concise while reserving plenty of deserved praise for soldiers in the field and our allies,” Exum wrote in an email. “Gen. McCaffrey confirms what we’ve known for quite some time: Afghanistan is an under-resourced war that suffers from both a serious lack of unity of effort and no clear guidance across the NATO forces as to what we’re supposed to be doing. The report is less helpful from a policy perspective with respect to how, in an environment of scarcity, we’re supposed to balance our resources between Iraq and Afghanistan — and whether or not we have the treasure or patience to stay in Afghanistan long enough to both defeat the insurgency and reform a hopelessly corrupt establishment.”

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