August 8, 2008

American troops in Afghanistan deserve a better command structure

While the military situation in Iraq continues to improve and is all but won, senior American officials are finally paying more attention to the situation in Afghanistan. There is increased Taliban activity in the provinces that border Pakistan’s lawless North West Frontier province and the Waziristans.

If you read the press, it sounds like the entire country is deteriorating into chaos and that Taliban forces are gaining ground. For example, a recent report from the Associated Press was headlined in the San Francisco Chronicle as “U.S. deaths surging in Afghanistan.” While there has been an uptick in violence, to say that U.S. deaths are “surging” is a bit overstated.

There are several reasons for the increased casualties, not only on the American and coalition side, but a significantly greater toll on the Taliban side. In the recent months, American, NATO and Afghan forces have been taking the fight to the enemy. The Taliban attempt to push back – when they engage, they lose the battle. However, the increased tempo of operations also means taking casualties.

There are several problems that hinder the complete eradication of the Taliban, in addition to the obvious Pakistan border issue. The coalition forces operating in the country, from NATO and non-NATO nations, operate under several different command structures. Also, many of the NATO countries – Germany is the prime example – are severely restricted by their governments to non-combat roles, and are inadequately resourced for the mission. The major combat burden is being borne by U.S, Canadian, British, Dutch and Polish troops. Most of the shortfall – intelligence, artillery support, logistics, aviation, medical, etc. - is picked up by American forces.

A good first step would be the creation of a unified command structure for all military forces in the country, including the over 60,000-strong Afghan National Army. The Afghan army takes orders from the Afghan government. The almost 53,000 NATO forces (14,000 of which are Americans) operate under a confusing array of commands that answers to NATO headquarters in Belgium. Then you have various American command structures to deal with. Some American are in NATO, some are under the command of the U.S. Central Command, and others (primarily special forces) operate under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command.

We have placed 32,000 American troops in harm’s way in Afghanistan. They are fighting a determined and capable enemy. They deserve not only the best equipment and support, but also a sensible command structure that maximizes the military capabilities of all the forces. A single command structure that can symbiotically employ the diverse capabilities of all the forces in the country would go a long way to shortening the life expectancy of the Taliban.