Obama's plan and the key battleground
This article was first published on the Stratfor website.
The author, George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the
world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence.
U.S. President Barack Obama announced the broad structure of his Afghanistan strategy in a speech
at West Point on Tuesday evening. The strategy had three core elements.
First, he intends to maintain pressure on al Qaeda on the
Afghan-Pakistani border and in other regions of the world. Second, he
intends to blunt the Taliban offensive by sending an additional 30,000
American troops to Afghanistan, along with an unspecified number of
NATO troops he hopes will join them. Third, he will use the space
created by the counteroffensive against the Taliban and the resulting
security in some regions of Afghanistan to train and build Afghan
military forces and civilian structures to assume responsibility after
the United States withdraws. Obama added that the U.S. withdrawal will
begin in July 2011, but provided neither information on the magnitude
of the withdrawal nor the date when the withdrawal would conclude. He
made it clear that these will depend on the situation on the ground,
adding that the U.S. commitment is finite.In understanding this strategy, we must begin with an obvious but unstated point: The extra forces that will be deployed to Afghanistan are not expected to defeat the
Taliban. Instead, their mission is to reverse the momentum of previous
years and to create the circumstances under which an Afghan force can
take over the mission. The U.S. presence is therefore a stopgap
measure, not the ultimate solution.
The ultimate solution is training an Afghan force to engage the Taliban
over the long haul, undermining support for the Taliban, and dealing
with al Qaeda forces along the Pakistani border and in the rest of
Afghanistan. If the United States withdraws all of its forces as Obama
intends, the Afghan military would have to assume all of these
missions. Therefore, we must consider the condition of the Afghan
military to evaluate the strategy’s viability.
Afghanistan vs. Vietnam
Obama went to great pains to distinguish Afghanistan from Vietnam,
and there are indeed many differences. The core strategy adopted by
Richard Nixon (not Lyndon Johnson) in Vietnam, called “Vietnamization,”
saw U.S. forces working to blunt and disrupt the main North Vietnamese
forces while the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) would be
trained, motivated and deployed to replace U.S. forces to be
systematically withdrawn from Vietnam. The equivalent of the Afghan
surge was the U.S. attack on North Vietnamese Army (NVA) bases in
Cambodia and offensives in northern South Vietnam designed to disrupt
NVA command and control and logistics and forestall a major offensive
by the NVA. Troops were in fact removed in parallel with the Cambodian
Nixon faced two points Obama now faces. First, the United States
could not provide security for South Vietnam indefinitely. Second, the
South Vietnamese would have to provide security for themselves. The
role of the United States was to create the conditions under which the
ARVN would become an effective fighting force; the impending U.S.
withdrawal was intended to increase the pressure on the Vietnamese
government to reform and on the ARVN to fight.
Many have argued that the core weakness of the strategy was that the
ARVN was not motivated to fight. This was certainly true in some cases,
but the idea that the South Vietnamese were generally sympathetic to
the Communists is untrue. Some were, but many weren’t, as shown by the
minimal refugee movement into NVA-held territory or into North Vietnam
itself contrasted with the substantial refugee movement into
U.S./ARVN-held territory and away from NVA forces. The patterns of
refugee movement are, we think, highly indicative of true sentiment.
Certainly, there were mixed sentiments, but the failure of the ARVN
was not primarily due to hostility or even lack of motivation. Instead,
it was due to a problem that must be addressed and overcome if the
Afghanistation war is to succeed. That problem is understanding the
role that Communist sympathizers and agents played in the formation of
By the time the ARVN expanded — and for that matter from its very
foundation — the North Vietnamese intelligence services had created a
systematic program for inserting operatives and recruiting sympathizers
at every level of the ARVN, from senior staff and command positions
down to the squad level. The exploitation of these assets was not
random nor merely intended to undermine moral. Instead, it provided the
NVA with strategic, operational and tactical intelligence on ARVN
operations, and when ARVN and U.S. forces operated together, on U.S.
efforts as well.
In any insurgency, the key for insurgent victory is avoiding battles
on the enemy’s terms and initiating combat only on the insurgents’
terms. The NVA was a light infantry force. The ARVN — and the U.S. Army
on which it was modeled — was a much heavier, combined-arms force. In
any encounter between the NVA and its enemies the NVA would lose unless
the encounter was at the time and place of the NVA’s choosing. ARVN and
U.S. forces had a tremendous advantage in firepower and sheer weight.
But they had a significant weakness: The weight they bought to bear
meant they were less agile. The NVA had a tremendous weakness. Caught
by surprise, it would be defeated. And it had a great advantage: Its
intelligence network inside the ARVN generally kept it from being
surprised. It also revealed weakness in its enemies’ deployment,
allowing it to initiate successful offensives.
All war is about intelligence, but nowhere is this truer than in
counterinsurgency and guerrilla war, where invisibility to the enemy
and maintaining the initiative in all engagements is key. Only clear
intelligence on the enemy’s capability gives this initiative to an
insurgent, and only denying intelligence to the enemy — or knowing what
the enemy knows and intends — preserves the insurgent force.
The construction of an Afghan military is an obvious opportunity for
Taliban operatives and sympathizers to be inserted into the force. As
in Vietnam, such operatives and sympathizers are not readily
distinguishable from loyal soldiers; ideology is not something easy to
discern. With these operatives in place, the Taliban will know of and
avoid Afghan army forces and will identify Afghan army weaknesses.
Knowing that the Americans are withdrawing as the NVA did in Vietnam
means the rational strategy of the Taliban is to reduce operational
tempo, allow the withdrawal to proceed, and then take advantage of
superior intelligence and the ability to disrupt the Afghan forces
internally to launch the Taliban offensives.
The Western solution is not to prevent Taliban sympathizers from
penetrating the Afghan army. Rather, the solution is penetrating the
Taliban. In Vietnam, the United States used signals intelligence
extensively. The NVA came to understand this and minimized radio
communications, accepting inefficient central command and control in
return for operational security. The solution to this problem lay in
placing South Vietnamese into the NVA. There were many cases in which
this worked, but on balance, the NVA had a huge advantage in the length
of time it had spent penetrating the ARVN versus U.S. and ARVN
counteractions. The intelligence war on the whole went to the North
Vietnamese. The United States won almost all engagements, but the NVA
made certain that it avoided most engagements until it was ready.
In the case of Afghanistan, the United States has far more
sophisticated intelligence-gathering tools than it did in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, the basic principle remains: An intelligence tool can be
understood, taken into account and evaded. By contrast, deep
penetration on multiple levels by human intelligence cannot be avoided.
Obama mentioned Pakistan’s
critical role. Clearly, he understands the lessons of Vietnam regarding
sanctuary, and so he made it clear that he expects Pakistan to engage
and destroy Taliban forces on its territory and to deny Afghan Taliban
supplies, replacements and refuge. He cited the Swat and South Waziristan offensives as examples of the Pakistanis’ growing effectiveness. While
this is a significant piece of his strategy, the Pakistanis must play
another role with regard to intelligence.
The heart of Obama’s strategy lies not in the surge, but rather in
turning the war over to the Afghans. As in Vietnam, any simplistic
model of loyalties doesn’t work. There are Afghans sufficiently
motivated to form the core of an effective army. As in Vietnam, the
problem is that this army will contain large numbers of Taliban
sympathizers; there is no way to prevent this. The Taliban is not
stupid: It has and will continue to move its people into as many key
positions as possible.
The challenge lies in leveling the playing field by inserting
operatives into the Taliban. Since the Afghan intelligence services are
inherently insecure, they can’t carry out such missions. American
personnel bring technical intelligence to bear, but that does not
compensate for human intelligence. The only entity that could
conceivably penetrate the Taliban and remain secure is the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
This would give the Americans and Afghans knowledge of Taliban plans
and deployments. This would diminish the ability of the Taliban to
evade attacks, and although penetrated as well, the Afghan army would
enjoy a chance ARVN never had.
But only the ISI could do this, and thinking of the ISI as secure is
hard to do from a historical point of view. The ISI worked closely with
the Taliban during the Afghan civil war that brought it to power and
afterwards, and the ISI had many Taliban sympathizers. The ISI
underwent significant purging and restructuring to eliminate these
elements over recent years, but no one knows how successful these
remains the center of gravity of the entire problem. If the war is
about creating an Afghan army, and if we accept that the Taliban will
penetrate this army heavily no matter what, then the only counter is to
penetrate the Taliban equally. Without that, Obama’s entire strategy
fails as Nixon’s did.
In his talk, Obama quite properly avoided discussing the
intelligence aspect of the war. He clearly cannot ignore the problem we
have laid out, but neither can he simply count on the ISI. He does not
need the entire ISI for this mission, however. He needs a carved out
portion — compartmentalized and invisible to the greatest possible
extent — to recruit and insert operatives into the Taliban and to
create and manage communication networks so as to render the Taliban
transparent. Given Taliban successes of late, it isn’t clear whether he
has this intelligence capability. Either way, we would have to assume
that some Pakistani solution to the Taliban intelligence issue has been
discussed (and such a solution must be Pakistani for ethnic and
Every war has its center of gravity,
and Obama has made clear that the center of gravity of this war will be
the Afghan military’s ability to replace the Americans in a very few
years. If that is the center of gravity, and if maintaining security
against Taliban penetration is impossible, then the single most
important enabler to Obama’s strategy would seem to be the ability to
make the Taliban transparent.
Therefore, Pakistan is important not only as the Cambodia of this
war, the place where insurgents go to regroup and resupply, but also as
a key element of the solution to the intelligence war. It is all about Pakistan.
And that makes Obama’s plan difficult to execute. It is far easier to
write these words than to execute a plan based on them. But to the
extent Obama is serious about the Afghan army taking over, he and his
team have had to think about how to do this.
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