High risk low reward for Obama retreat from Afghanistan

Max Boot:
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present.”

The Obama administration appears determined to vacate Afghanistan as fast as possible. If the latest leaks are to be believed, officials are willing to leave as few as 6,000 U.S. troops behind after 2014, concentrated at the Bagram air base and a few other installations around Kabul. The mind boggles at what this would mean in military terms.

Consider one simple fact: Kandahar, the city where the Taliban movement started, is 310 miles southwest of Kabul. Imagine that intelligence analysts have identified a “high-value target” — say, a terrorist facilitator with links to both al-Qaeda and the Taliban — in Kandahar. How would the U.S. military capture or kill him without a secure base in Kandahar?

This scenario is, on some level, fanciful, because the lack of a U.S. presence on the ground around Kandahar would make it very difficult to generate useful intelligence. How would the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency run agents or even operate drones? Even assuming that the intelligence could be garnered, it would be exceedingly hard to act on the information.

A SEAL or Delta Force team typically reaches its target by helicopter. But Kandahar is a two-hour helicopter flight from Kabul and a fully loaded Blackhawk would need to refuel to make the round trip. Assuming there is no U.S. base in Kandahar, this would require aerial refueling, which is difficult and costly and would not necessarily be available 24-7. Given the long flight time, there is a good chance that by the time the commandos arrived, the target would have moved on.

It is doubtful that such a force would be dispatched in the first place, however, because commanders would be reluctant to send special operators into high-risk situations without having quick-reaction forces standing by to rescue them in the event of trouble. U.S. generals would not feel comfortable entrusting the lives of these elite operators to local Afghan army forces, especially in light of the well-advertised problem of Taliban infiltrators, so they would probably not order the mission in the first place.

That would leave only one way to attack a terrorist kingpin in Kandahar: from the air, with either an armed Predator or a manned aircraft such as an F-16. Yet the ability to keep either kind of aerial platform over Kandahar would be severely limited by the need to fly 600 miles round-trip from Bagram simply to arrive on station. So there would probably be a considerable time lag simply to drop a bomb, which again raises the risk of missing the target.

There are several problems with relying on air power alone.  Boot points out that we would lose valuable intelligence that we would get from a capture and interrogation.  This has already been happening in Pakistan and Yemen where we are over reliant on Hellfire strikes from drones.  The other problem with relying solely on air power is that it is transitory.  It lacks the persistent presents that you get with ground troops.  Air power is best used in a combined arms operation with ground forces and preferably with heavy armor too if the attack is on a built up defensive position.

Because the Taliban rely on a raiding strategy the most effective way to counter it is by developing a force to space ration adequate to cut off the enemy's movement to contact.  Because Obama did not provide enough troops to do that in the country as a whole, the military had to choose where it would engage in counter insurgency operations and chose Helmand province.  There were not enough troops to operation in Kunar in the east where we could have cut their logistic and manpower movements from Pakistan.

With only 6,000 troops in the country there will be little that can be accomplished beyond occasional raids and air strikes.  It maybe enough to keep the enemy from massing it forces, but it can still control a lot of real estate indirectly and there will be little that can be done to stop it.  The so called counter terrorism attacks will have to rely on intelligence that is far from our control.


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