Kerry argues for counter-insurgency lite
By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - Amid growing speculation and partisan bickering over what United
States President Barack Obama will do about the deteriorating situation in
Afghanistan, an influential Democratic senator on Monday warned against
deploying tens of thousands more US troops there.
Just back from a diplomatic trip in Kabul, John Kerry criticized a military
proposal to send about 40,000 more US troops to Afghanistan as part of a major
counter-insurgency (COIN) campaign to defeat the Taliban as "go[ing] too far,
"We have already begun implementing a counter-insurgency strategy - but I
believe that right now it needs to be as narrowly focused as possible," he told
the Council on Foreign Relations in
Washington. "We must be very wary of over-extension. And I am particularly
concerned about the potential for us to be viewed as foreign occupiers."
Afghanistan's government, he went on, should - with US help - make major
advances in building up its own military and security forces and in providing
better governance to its people before Washington commits substantially greater
numbers of troops to the fight.
"Under the right circumstances, if we can be confident that military efforts
can be sustained and built upon, then I would support the president should he
decide to send some additional troops to regain the initiative," he said.
At the same time, he rejected what he called a "narrow counter-terrorism [CT]
mission" - initially favored by Vice President Joseph Biden, according to
published reports - that would permit the administration to draw down the
roughly 68,000 US troops who are currently deployed to Afghanistan and rely on
a strategy of Predator drone and special forces strikes against leaders of
al-Qaeda and allied groups.
"We all see the appeal of a limited counter-terrorism mission - and no doubt it
is part of the end game. But I don't think we're there yet," he said. "A narrow
mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war and
put Pakistan at risk."
Moreover, he added, "we need boots on the ground" to obtain the intelligence
needed to track down terrorist targets.
Kerry's speech comes at a critical moment in the ongoing public and internal
administration debate over US strategy in Afghanistan, a debate that is certain
to become more intense after Monday's crashes in two separate incidents of
three US helicopters.
A total of 14 troops and three anti-drug agents were killed in what was the
single-deadliest day for US forces in Afghanistan in more than four years. A
military helicopter crashed on Monday on its return from a firefight with
suspected Taliban drug traffickers in western Afghanistan, killing 10 Americans
including three Drug Enforcement Agency agents. Four more troops were killed
when two helicopters collided over southern Afghanistan.
Kerry made an extended trip to Kabul where he reportedly played a major role in
persuading President Hamid Karzai to accept a run-off election next month
against his main challenger, a former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.
That success, which was widely noted in the mainstream media, will likely give
him additional influence both among his fellow Democrats in the US Congress,
who appear split on Afghanistan, and within the Obama White House with which he
has consulted closely over the past 10 months.
Obama has been deliberating for more than a month on a bleak analysis of the
situation in Afghanistan submitted in August by his top military commander in
Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
The review argued that only a large-scale COIN campaign designed to provide
security in key population centers and accelerate the training of Afghan forces
can reverse the momentum that has been running in the Taliban's favor for the
past several years.
While McChrystal's report, which was leaked to the Washington Post in
September, did not state explicitly how many US troops would be needed to
accomplish the mission, insiders suggested that the general and his immediate
superior, the chief of the Central Command, General David Petraeus, were hoping
for a total of at least 100,000.
Since the leak, most Republican leaders have called on Obama, who has held a
series of meetings on Afghanistan with his top national security advisers over
the past several weeks, to urgently adopt McChrystal's proposed strategy and
any number of troops that he requests.
Last week, former vice president Dick Cheney accused Obama of "dithering while
America's armed forces are in danger", a charge that has since been taken up
with enthusiasm by right-wing and neo-conservative hawks in congress and the
In his remarks on Monday, Kerry took on Cheney directly, noting that it was the
former vice president "who in 2002 told America that the Taliban regime is out
of business, permanently".
"Make no mistake," he went on, "because of the gross mishandling of this war by
past civilian leadership, there are no great options for its handling today."
Kerry praised McChrystal, noting that "he understands the necessity of
conducting a smart counter-insurgency in a limited geographic area",
specifically in the Pashtun regions of eastern and southern Afghanistan where
the Taliban are strongest.
"But I believe his current plan reaches too far, too fast," he said, adding,
"We do not yet have the critical guarantees of governance and development
capacity - the other two legs of counter-insurgency."
"[D]ecisions about additional troops," he said, should be based on an
assessment of three conditions.
"First, are there enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops
- and eventually to take over responsibility for security?" he asked, stressing
the importance of "on-the-job training ... as soon as possible".
"The second question is, are there local leaders we can partner with? We have
to be able to identify and cooperate with tribal, district and provincial
leaders who command the authority to help deliver services and restore Afghans'
faith in their own government," he said.
"Third, is the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that
brings tangible benefits to the local population?" he asked, noting, "Progress
on this front is expected in the coming months with a significant influx of US
civilians and efforts to work with the Afghan government to implement reforms."
"[A]bsent an urgent strategic imperative," he said, "we need a valid assessment
by the president and other appropriate civilian authorities - not just the
military - that those three conditions will be met before we consider sending
more soldiers and marines to clear new areas."
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.