Afghanistan war strategy shift portends troop drawdown

A senior military official says U.S. forces soon will begin winding down counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan, signaling a major shift in the decade-old conflict.

U.S. forces are working to “set the conditions” for Afghan government officials and security forces to assume control of key provinces by next fall as American troops begin to exit, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos told The Hill. 

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President Obama has directed that 30,000 U.S. forces be withdrawn from Afghanistan by September 2012.

“I’m pretty confident … that over the next 12 months that we can transition from what you would call classic counterinsurgency operations to ... training and advising” Afghan forces, Amos said in an interview. 

Amos said his Marines are “working really hard” to build local governments and police, as well as Afghanistan’s national security force. Once those entities are adequate, he said, “I’m very confident that the Afghans can take care of this on their own.

“That’ll happen over the next year,” the commandant said, noting “it won’t be a clean transition, it’ll be a rolling transition.”


Amos’s description of Marines increasingly taking a backseat to indigenous forces and officials came just days before a flap between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials. Karzai wants the American military to stop nighttime raids.

“We want a strategic partnership but with specific conditions: our national integrity, no night raids, no house searches,” Karzai said during a major forum of thousands of Afghan leaders in Kabul, according to media reports.

The night raids have long been a grievance of Afghan citizens, and Karzai is seeking assurances that they will cease before his government agrees to a long-term security pact with Washington.

Negotiations for that pact are still being worked out. It is part of Obama’s push to remove the 30,000 U.S. forces while also handing control of more provinces to Afghan leaders and security forces.

Lawmakers on Thursday pushed back against Karzai’s demands.

The overnight raids long have been a part of U.S. tactical doctrine, and have led to the capture of “thousands” of suspected American foes, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) acknowledged the military was heavy-handed with the raids for years. “We made more enemies than friends,” he said.

But American commanders have since shifted to an “Afghan-centric” approach that includes sending female troops to interrogate women and allows an Afghan-only group to decide whether certain overnight missions should take place, Graham said. 

What’s more, Graham said, “we try and make sure Afghans go through the door first.”

But both Levin and Graham said Afghan troops remain dependent on U.S. forces’ expertise and equipment to carry out the overnight missions.

Michael Sheehan, tapped to be assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, told the Senate panel officials are searching for “the proper balance” on the night raids.

“The key here is transferring the lead to local special-operations forces as they develop their capacity,” Sheehan said.

That is exactly what Amos said his Marines are trying to do in the provinces where they are operating.

“Will [the transition] be absolutely perfect?” Amos asked. “No. Will it be good enough? I think so. I’m pretty confident.”

One Pentagon adviser, however, is less optimistic.

“The odds of meaningful strategic success have dropped from roughly even in 2009, to between 4:1 to 6:1 against at the end of 2011,” said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who often advises the Pentagon.

The United States “has yet to present a credible and detailed plan for transition that shows that the U.S. and its allies can achieve some form of stable, strategic outcome in Afghanistan,” said Cordesman, who helped military commanders revise their Afghanistan war strategy in 2009.

The course of the Afghanistan conflict is expected to be among the top foreign-policy issues in the 2012 election.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) recently told The Hill the war ranks among the top issues his constituents bring up.

“It’s jobs, the deficit and Afghanistan,” he said.