Understanding Afghan war strategy

Published 5:56 pm Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Recent news reports suggest the President may be considering a strategy announcement in the coming weeks or even days as it relates to the war in Afghanistan. As with any decision of significance to our nation, it is important for constituents to have facts and information. I have prepared the following constituent brief to summarize recent developments in Afghanistan, the views and considerations of key decision-makers, and the various options available to these leaders.

Despite information that is available to me as a Member of Congress, one critical and significant body of information has been denied to me thus far. Recent controversy has centered on the Administration’s refusal to grant a bipartisan request for General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, to testify before the House Armed Services Committee as other military leaders have done in the past.

As the Administration weighs significant decisions on our strategy in Afghanistan, it is essential that they be candid and transparent with Congress and the American people. Refusing this information hamstrings lawmakers who have been charged with constitutional oversight responsibilities and who will be asked to authorize the taxpayer funding necessary for continued military campaigns.

Virginia’s Fourth District is home to some of the finest men and women that serve our nation; many have or will directly serve in Afghanistan; even more are still stationed in the Fourth District supporting our military operations in Afghanistan everyday. I am humbled and proud to represent them as the Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Readiness Committee. As you read the executive summary of this brief, I invite you to share your thoughts with me as debate and dialogue on this important issue heightens.

Executive Summary

In recent years, the United States has seen a deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan. This environment has been marked by an expanding presence of insurgents in some regions of the country, increasing numbers of civilian and military casualties, Afghan and international disillusionment with corruption in the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and the infiltration of Taliban militants from safe havens in Pakistan.

In response, in March of this year, the Obama Administration announced the results of a strategic review that called for an increase of 21,000 U.S. troops by October 2009. The review also emphasized non-military steps such as increasing the resources devoted to economic development, building Afghan governance primarily at the local level, reforming the Afghan government, expanding and reforming the Afghan security forces, and trying to improve Pakistan’s efforts to curb militant activity on its soil.

In May, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, was replaced by Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal. At the end of August, Gen. McChrystal submitted his review of the military strategy in Afghanistan, in which he recommended the U.S. engage in a comprehensive counter-insurgency strategy. According to media reports, Gen. McChrystal has requested an additional 40,000 U.S. combat forces to support this strategy. President Obama said on September 20, 2009, he would first decide on whether the United States “has the strategy right” before deciding on the resources necessary to accomplish a particular strategy.

Key Questions

What is the stated purpose of our troop presence in Afghanistan?

President Obama has said we are maintaining our presence in Afghanistan “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” He has also said that, “If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is… fundamental to the defense of our people.”

How many troops are in Afghanistan?

There are approximately 65,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Of this number, about 32,000 are part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) that operates throughout Afghanistan, and the remainder operate under the separate U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom. U.S. and partner forces are also training and building an Afghan National Army and reforming an Afghan National Police force. The two combined now total about 175,000.

If Gen. McChrystal is granted an additional 40,000 U.S. troops the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would exceed 100,000.

How much money has the United States spent on the campaign in Afghanistan?

Since 2001, the United States has spent $227 billion in Afghanistan, the rough equivalent to the cost of twenty aircraft carriers.

How does the military define “success” in Afghanistan?

According to Gen. McChrystal’s review, success of the mission is defined by the following three objectives: “ISAF conducts operations in Afghanistan to 1) reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, 2) support the growth and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces, and 3) facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.”