September 1, 2010
My Fellow Americans,
… so much for Iraq. Turning now to Afghanistan, let me be clear. My learning curve has been steep, as the New York Times noted last weekend. The curve has also been jagged as I have tried to assimilate the not-always-consistent advice the four-star generals have given me.
Iraqis watch Obama’s televised speech in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010. Photo: Karim Kadim.
It’s been more than a little confusing. When I took office, Gen. David McKiernan was running the war in Afghanistan. He had expressed himself openly and strongly against an Iraq-style “surge” of forces, emphasizing that Afghanistan is “a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq,” where he had led U.S. ground forces.
“The word I don’t use for Afghanistan is ‘surge,’” McKiernan told a news conference on Oct. 1, 2008, singling out for mention the country’s rural population and mountainous terrain, which deepen the nation’s tribal divisions and weaken national cohesion.
As I was campaigning for president, McKiernan also warned that we could not do Afghanistan on the cheap. Rather, what would be needed was a “sustained commitment” that could last many more years.
At the time there were 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan (as compared with close to 100,000 now). McKiernan wanted no more, unless he could count on having them for the longer term with the objective being clear.
So, let me tell you how things changed from then to now. Gen. David Petraeus said he had a better idea, so I let him persuade me to cashier McKiernan after less than a year in Afghanistan and replace him with Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Backed by Gen. Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. McChrystal pushed for a major escalation in Afghanistan. He wanted 40,000 more troops on top of the 21,000 that I had sent in response to an urgent request just after I became president.
If you remember, in fall 2009, I was facing political pressure from the Pentagon and from former Vice President Dick Cheney who accused me of “dithering” while I conducted an Afghan policy review. So, as a compromise of sorts, I agreed to expand the force by 30,000 more soldiers but I said they would start coming home by July 2011.
On the ground, however, Gen. McChrystal made little headway. He could not tame the rural area of Marja even though he sent thousands of Marines there in what was supposed to be a warm-up for a more ambitious campaign to “stabilize “ Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city and a Taliban stronghold.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen recently shared with me what he told columnist David Ignatius two months ago; namely, that his generals “underestimated the challenges” in Marja, and now they don’t quite know what to do about Kandahar.
They weren’t even sure how much progress they might or might not be making. “It’s going to take until the end of the year to know where we are” there, Admiral Mullen said.
Let me be clear, again. I must tell you that I have increasing doubts that the four-stars who brief me really know what they’re doing in Afghanistan. Gen. McChrystal even found a curious way to exit Afghanistan, when he and his top aides were quoted in Rolling Stone magazine disparaging me and the civilian leadership. I then replaced McChrystal with Petraeus.
In an unconventional attempt to climb more quickly up the learning curve, I also traveled incognito to the Army infantry school at Fort Benning, to listen to what the lieutenants and captains are learning about strategy and tactics. It was an eye opener!
Can’t Get There From Here
One key teaching point was the importance of what the Army calls the LOC — the line of communication along which supplies and forces can move between a base and troops in the field.
The instructors at Benning insisted that competent commanders never commit large numbers of troops to battle without having established secure LOCs. They then winced when they displayed a relief map of Afghanistan and neighboring countries, showing the deployment of U.S. forces.
The instructors pointed out that Napoleon had to learn the hard way the importance of LOCs, even though he himself coined the expression “an army travels on its stomach” — meaning that keeping it supplied with fuel, food and ammunition is prerequisite to success. (For Napoleon, a chance to grab Russia was just too tempting.)
The good news, they said, was that in Iraq the highly vulnerable hundreds-of-miles-long land supply line between Kuwait and Baghdad had not been cut – although many brave soldiers were killed along the highway from roadside bombs. But the worse news for Afghanistan is that it would be sheer folly to count on having similar success, given the country’s terrain and remoteness.
As Gen. McKiernan knew first hand, Iraq has relatively flat topography and an extensive highway network. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has formidable mountains and mostly dirt or gravel roads. Blogger Ben Gilbert put it succinctly in a recent article:
“Moving all the things 100,000 troops need to fight and survive in a hostile foreign land is never an easy task. In a landlocked, mountainous country the size of Texas, with few paved roads, it is even harder.”
Thousands of trucks pick up most of the needed supplies — including drinking water — after they arrive in the Pakistani port of Karachi. Then the trucks wend their way through dangerous parts of Pakistan and the Kyber Pass (a 33-mile passage through the Hindu Kush) into Afghanistan.
The transport is incredibly expensive, especially by the time the warlords and bandits are paid protection money to let the supplies through. And the trucks don’t get many miles to the gallon.
A congressional report issued in June, titled “Warlord, Inc.: Extortion and Corruption along the U.S. Supply Chain,” found that U.S. military contractors pay millions of dollars in protection money to Afghan warlords, and that some of that money finds its way to those fighting our own troops.
The Pentagon had been largely blind to the strategic vulnerabilities of its supply chain contracting, the report added.
I was told that neither the Pentagon nor our forces in Afghanistan have much visibility into what happens to the trucks carrying U.S. supplies between the time the trucks leave Karachi until they reach their destinations.
And one can only imagine what additional disruptions to the supply lines have been caused by the widespread flooding in Pakistan.
There is resupply by air, but that too is a risky and expensive proposition and cannot handle most of the necessary armaments and supplies.
As for other available supply routes, any commander who would be comfortable depending on the good will of Russia and the various “-stans” located between Russia and Afghanistan, has not taken the basic course at Fort Benning.
It is a mess, but perhaps not as bad as it may seem. As the Commander in Chief of your military, I must admit that I just don’t know the answer.
So, I asked my staff to brief me on whether the Marines trying to subdue and secure the Afghan rural area around Marja were having problems with resupply.
Turns out that Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was in Afghanistan in early June, and in a speech at the Naval War College on June 9, he had high praise for the Marines engaged in resupply, though his comments were a bit alarming. This is part of what he said:
“Just think about what it takes to get a gallon of gas to a frontline unit in Afghanistan. I visited a bunch of forward operating bases last week. To get a gallon of gas to one of those units you’ve got to take it across the Pacific, put it on trucks, take it across the Hindu Kush and all the way down to one of those forward operating bases. Only then do you get to put it in the tank of a vehicle or generator.
“Every step of the process, you add money and every step of the process you take Marines away from combat, engagement, and development to guard that gasoline. And for every 25 trucks we send into Afghanistan we lose a Marine, killed or wounded.”
Now let me be clear, again. Ray Mabus, bless his heart, was trying to show he understands the extra burden that resupply puts on the Marines in Afghanistan. But I thought to myself, “Gosh, that’s probably why it costs $400 to get a gallon of gas into a Marine tank there.”
Mabus didn’t mention the pay-offs for graft and protection. But, still, his remarks left me persuaded that the LOC problem may in the end amount to a case of “you can’t get there from here” — at least not without spending inordinate sums of taxpayer money, some of which goes to those fighting against our troops.
Other Basic Learnings
There were other strategic/tactical fundamentals presented by the instructors at Fort Benning — fundamentals that seem to have escaped our senior generals. At least they have not told me much about them: Terrain, for example.
While Gen. McKiernan clearly saw those rugged mountains as an impediment, neither Petraeus nor McChrystal briefed me on the terrain, nor on the fact that those mountains have been the nemesis of invaders/occupiers for 2,337 years, ever since Alexander the Great made a try at subduing Afghanistan.
As brilliant a commander as Alexander was, he ended up having to yield to the wishes of his whittled-down, worn-out troops to head back to Asia Minor. However, Gen. Petraeus with his can-do spirit apparently feels he can do better than Alexander the Great.
Another fundamental factor the Fort Benning instructors homed in on was weather. They say it gets really cold in those Afghan mountains for half the year, shrinking the fighting season and giving strong advantage to our indigenous opponents.
Last, but by no means least, the Benning instructors kept insisting that any commanders worth their salt would do their level best to estimate enemy strength; that is, the number of forces they face, before starting an offensive of any kind.
Now let me be clear once more. As I hope you are aware, I am a Christian, not a Muslim, and I have studied my Bible closely. So that advice rang some bells:
“If a ruler is about to do battle with another country, will he not sit down first and consider whether, with ten thousand men, he can withstand an enemy coming against him with twenty thousand. If he cannot, he will send a delegation while the enemy is still at a distance, asking for terms of peace.” Luke 14:31-32
A sensible approach, don’t you agree? And it reminded me that I can never seem to get a straight answer from my advisers as to how many enemy forces are arrayed against us in Afghanistan, how many are al-Qaeda terrorists wanting to attack the United States and how many are Afghans who simply want to drive out what they see as a foreign occupation army.
And this is not an academic question. It goes to the heart of what I have been saying since I’ve been in the White House. For instance, in March 2009, I said this:
“I want the American people to understand that we have a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.”
But what’s particularly embarrassing is that CIA Director Leon Panetta goes on TV and says, with no apparent awkwardness, that there are only 50, “maybe less,” al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan.
I know; I know; seems a little much to have 100,000 troops chasing 50 of them, but then Panetta reminds me not to forget about the Taliban, the hardliners who were groomed by our Pakistani allies to take over Afghanistan in the 1990s. The Taliban then gave al-Qaeda a safe haven.
How many Taliban are there, I ask? But Panetta doesn’t know.
Then, in July I read in the Washington Post that the recently resigned Afghan intelligence chief, a gentleman named Amarullah Saleh, claims he knows. Saleh told the Post that the Taliban leadership numbers about 200 but many of those are in Karachi, Pakistan.
The second ring of Taliban leadership (about 1,700 field commanders) oversee a fighting force of 10,000 to 30,000, depending on the season, said Saleh, adding that the Taliban commanders captured or killed during Gen. McChrystal’s tenure have been replaced by a “new crop.”
I am aware of suggestions that one needs to regard most of the 33 million people in Afghanistan as “insurgents” or — perhaps more accurately — resistance, because they don’t want us there.
On top of that, thanks to WikiLeaks, the whole world is now aware of the double game being played by the Pakistani intelligence service in taking our money and then arming (and sometimes leading) Taliban fighters against our own soldiers and Marines.
At this point, I am thinking maybe Gen. McKiernan may have been right after all. It’s all so very awkward; sometimes I think the whole world is laughing at us. Even the nice kids at Sidwell Friends are giving Malia and Sasha a hard time about it. And I don’t like it — not one bit.
But the buck stops here. So let me be clear again. What I have experienced with the generals over the past year – and what I’ve learned during my recent surreptitious instruction at Fort Benning – have convinced me to do what Ambassador Eikenberry strongly urged me to do last November.
Instead of simply caving in to complaints from Cheney about my “dithering”– and giving Petraeus and McChrystal nearly all the troops they asked for – I should have applied the full resources of the U.S. intelligence community to get a handle on the real prospects for Afghanistan.
So, I have now asked Ambassador Eikenberry to return to Washington to chair a fast-track, multidisciplinary National Intelligence Estimate on the conflict in Afghanistan. The fully coordinated NIE, with any dissents duly recorded, will be given to me no later than Nov. 15.
I want a fresh look at the entire complex of issues. I will expect members of the team that advised me last fall to become involved in critiquing the final Estimate after it is finished, but not to influence its findings beforehand.
I also have conferred by telephone with former President George W. Bush about all this. He heard me out, but then kept insisting that we cannot allow so many of our troops to have died in vain.
I told him, as gently as I could, that he might have thought of that at the outset; that I intended to be candid with the American people and not sugarcoat the hard reality that so many, on both sides, had indeed died in vain; and that our task now is to end the violence in as rapid and constructive a way as possible.
Fellow Americans, I can understand your impatience — and, for some of you, your grieving and your anger. Rest assured, I share the impatience and sympathize deeply with those who have lost loved ones.
But I promise you that this time around we are going to get it right, and my new decision on Afghanistan will be informed as much by the NIE and the lessons from Fort Benning, as by the four-star generals.
God bless America — and God bless the rest of the world, too. Good night.
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He served as an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then as a CIA analyst for a total of 30 years. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).