At a counterinsurgency conference in Washington yesterday Gen. Stanley McChrystal's leaked assessment of Afghanistan and its impact on the Obama administration's strategy for the war were the topics everyone wanted to talk about. For the counterinsurgency crowd, the underlying question was: Even if they are well-resourced, can counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan be successful? And, what have been the obstacles to success so far?
Most panel members painted a grim picture of the situation in Afghanistan, pointing to government corruption and poor leadership in the Afghan security forces as major obstacles to improving the security in the country.
Bing West presented a grave assessment of the situation that included photos and video from his recent trip there. Especially troubling to him, he said, is the Taliban's control of the beginning and end of firefights.
"We can put in more troops, but if we don't find a way to finish these fights, we'll have this conversation in a year or two years from now and the Taliban will still be intact," said West.
"What is our theory of victory?" he asked. "If you read the assessment that McChrystal came out with the other day, you read it very carefully, its theory of victory is not victory, it's transition -- and yet when you look at how do you transition, it becomes a bit fuzzy."
West said he is also troubled that the United States is building an Afghan army in its own image.
"They are all wearing armor, they're all wearing helmets, they're no more mobile than we are," he said. "When you get into a firefight, they immediately turn to the adviser, because he has permission to call in the indirect fires."
It is too early for the U.S. military to play the role of adviser or mentor, said Marine Col. Julian Dale Alford.
"The Afghan Army requires a partner force right now, then we can graduate to mentors and work our ways out of a job," he said. "We have it backwards."
He said the Afghan Army is doing well at the company-level and below, but at the battalion-level and above, they are struggling, "because they're trying to build the airplane while it's flying." It's at these levels where the lack of trained leadership is most telling and most detrimental, Alford and other panel members said.
Alford said that in order to truly partner with the Afghan security forces, the U.S. military needs to live with them, which is generally not the case now.
Alford also called for much better partnering with the Afghan police force -- an effort that will require at least 10 more brigades to adequately cover all of the districts, he argued.
"We have to do some real math and tell some real truth about what it's going to take if we're going to do population-centric COIN, because the police are the most important thing we're doing, and right now, we're not focused on it," said Alford.