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The American Enterprise Institute, the think tank that came up with the "surge" strategy for Iraq, has just completed a re-evaluation of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan and concluded that another surge of U.S. forces is required, this time into southern Afghanistan.
AEI gathered at least "two dozen" experts for three days of discussions that finished Sunday, according to a Washington source familiar with the proposal. The AEI team was headed up by resident scholar Fred Kagan and included "many of the previous participants" from the discussions that preceded AEI's Iraq surge proposal, including retired Army Gen. John M. "Jack" Keane, the source added.
In a telephone interview, Kagan said AEI did not conduct the study at the administration's request. While a "core group" of AEI employees worked on both studies, along with a small number of retired Army officers, "otherwise the personnel were [experts on] Afghanistan instead of Iraq," Kagan said.
"Our goals are just to take a look at this obviously very important issue, understand it and make recommendations about what should and should not be done," he added.
The Iraq strategy of surging some 30,000 additional troops to conduct counterinsurgency operations in the Baghdad area, implemented by the administration early in 2007, closely tracked the recommendations made in a paper authored by Kagan and titled "Choosing Victory - a Plan for Success in Iraq." The paper was based on the work of an ad-hoc collection of experts gathered by AEI and called the "Iraq Planning Group."
AEI is referring to the Afghanistan policy experts who met over the long weekend as the "Afghanistan Planning Group." Kagan said he planned to publish a report based on the group's findings in March.
The Bush administration has given signs recently that it is becoming increasingly concerned about security in southern Afghanistan, where North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies provide the bulk of the coalition's combat power. A Jan. 16 Los Angeles Times article quoted Defense Secretary Robert Gates criticizing those allies without naming them for not following proper counterinsurgency approaches.
But the White House has apparently come to the conclusion that trying to shame the allies into providing more troops and fighting harder is not working, and that more drastic steps might be required, according to the Washington source.
"They've finally woken up to the fact that all is not well in Afghanistan, and that brow-beating NATO is not really going to do the trick," the Washington source said. "Then there's the NATO ministerial [meeting] coming up in April. Basically what you come down to is that this was the moment for contributing good ideas as the administration tries to figure out what to do."
Driving the process, according to the Washington source, is the fear that the Taliban's recent gains in Afghanistan have imperiled the parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2009.
"The forcing function really in Afghanistan is the '09 election," the Washington source said. "It is the judgment of all knowledgeable observers that conditions in some parts of the country are not safe enough to conduct an election in 2009 of the sort that we had in 2005, and that the failure to do so would be a huge strategic setback on a variety of fronts."
The Afghanistan Planning Group made the following recommendations, according to the source:
* Deploy an extra U.S. brigade into Kandahar and a Marine battalion into Helmand in 2008 and maintain that force level through 2009. Some 28,000 U.S. troops are now in Afghanistan, about half the total coalition force there.
The administration has already announced plans to deploy an additional 3,200 Marines to Afghanistan, including a battalion to be stationed in Helmand.
* Deploy two extra brigade combat teams into southern Afghanistan in 2009.
* Expand the Afghan National Army more quickly than currently planned, using U.S. money if necessary.
* Provide NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest, with the necessary "enablers" such as engineers, aviation, surveillance and command and control assets.
* Use Commander's Emergency Response Program money to build forward operating bases for Afghan National Army units in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
Overall, the group concluded that a "surge" of three additional brigades was required to secure southern Afghanistan: one brigade in Kandahar province, one in Oruzgan province and a third split between Helmand province and the mission to establish border patrols, according to the Washington source.
The group also proposed a complete overhaul of the U.S. strategic approach to Pakistan, the source said.
"You have to go through a pretty rigorous not only internal Afghan but regional geopolitical assessment in order to be able to sort out what's essential from what's inessential," the source said. "Part of the problem is we've never had a really consistent, clear, long-term strategic idea for Afghanistan, let alone for Pashtunistan or Pakistan." Pashtunistan is the name sometimes given to homeland of the Pashtun ethnic group, which straddles the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The AEI study participants concluded that al-Qaida and its allies have established a major safe haven in Pakistan's Pashtun tribal areas that border Afghanistan. This threat demands a sophisticated strategy aimed at the entire region, not just Afghanistan, the Washington source said.
The Afghanistan Planning Group recommended a series of U.S. policy measures aimed at Pakistan, including:
* Threatening the Pakistanis with unilateral U.S. strikes into Pakistani territory unless the Pakistanis take the initiative to clear al-Qaida's safe havens themselves.
* Making U.S. military aid to Pakistan which is largely aimed at bolstering Pakistan's conventional forces that are focused on the perceived threat from India contingent on the Pakistani government asserting itself throughout the Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province, as well as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, which have traditionally enjoyed autonomy.
The view of the Afghan Planning Group was that Pakistan was allowing the Taliban to enjoy a safe haven in Quetta, a city in Baluchistan because it had long seen the Taliban as allies, according to the Washington source.
AEI will brief government officials in the days ahead, the source said. But he declined to go into detail about which government officials had requested the study or which specific individuals were scheduled to be briefed. "This thing is extremely delicate," he said. "The sensitivity of this is pretty high."
Spokespersons at the Defense Department and the White House could not be reached immediately for comment.