U.S. Afghanistan Drawdown Begins Slowly, 800 Marines Out in Fall

July 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s drawdown in Afghanistan will begin slowly, with the departure of just 800 National Guard troops this summer, followed by some 800 Marines in the fall, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

The details provided by Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the outgoing No. 2 commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and Pentagon officials offered the most detailed look so far at how the U.S. military intends to carry out the withdrawal ordered by Obama in June.

Facing growing political opposition to the nearly decade-old war, Obama announced plans to pull out about a third of the 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan by the end of summer 2012 — a faster timetable than the military had recommended.

The first 10,000 troops will come home by the end of the year. But Obama left the details up to his commanders.

“We have begun the process of working ourselves out of a job — meaning we will hand over the lead to the Afghans gradually, over time,” said Rodriguez, speaking to reporters in a video-conference from Afghanistan.

The Pentagon’s small initial drawdown leaves as many as 8,400 troops to withdraw in the last few months of 2011, and Rodriguez said he expected commanders to wait until later in the fall before deciding how to thin out those forces.

Jeffrey Dressler at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, said Rodriguez’s announcement was within expectations — particularly given the need to keep the bulk of troops in place until the end of the year.

“What the commanders are trying to do is conserve as much combat power as they can until the end of the fighting season,” Dressler said.

Rodriguez and the Pentagon offered the following details on the initial drawdown, without ruling out further changes.

* The Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 134th Cavalry Regiment in Kabul, with about 300 troops, leaves in July.

* The Army National Guard’s 1st Squadron, 113rd Cavalry Regiment, also leaves in July.

* 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment in southwest Afghanistan, with over 800 troops, will leave in fall.

Critics have said Obama’s decision to bring troops home from Afghanistan faster than the military has recommended could jeopardize the next major push of the war, to unseat insurgents in the east.
Republican Senator John McCain, speaking in Kabul on Sunday, said Obama’s drawdown plan created “unnecessary risk.”

Although extra U.S. troops ordered into southern Afghanistan have made security gains there, the situation in the east of the country bordering Pakistan has deteriorated.

Rodriguez, however, said U.S. military plans to shift the focus to the east remained on track, despite the drawdown.

“As we continue to maintain the momentum in the south … we will end up thinning out down there first, and then focusing more and more of our energy in the east,” he said.

Still, he declined to say when that might happen, adding: “It’s a little bit too early to take that guess right now.”

The drawdown comes amid intense fighting in Afghanistan, where more than 1,500 U.S. forces have been killed since the war began. Last week, insurgents staged a brazen raid on the Kabul Intercontinental hotel, killing 12 people and raising fresh questions about whether Afghan forces are ready to assume responsibilities as U.S. forces pull out.

Rodriguez commended the Afghan forces on what he called a “great response” to the attack but played down expectations that violence would ebb any time soon.

Asked whether he expected violence to start subsiding this year or next, Rodriguez said: “That remains to be seen. It’ll actually probably be next year.”

(Additional reporting by David Alexander; editing by Todd Eastham)

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Marjah Offensive Aimed to Shape US Opinion on War

February 28, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Gareth Porter, Inter Press Service

Washington – Senior military officials decided to launch the current U.S.-British military campaign to seize Marjah in large part to influence domestic U.S. opinion on the war in Afghanistan, the Washington Post reported Monday.

The Post report, by Greg Jaffe and Craig Whitlock, both of whom cover military affairs, said the town of Marjah would not have been chosen as a target for a U.S. military operation had the criterion been military significance instead of impact on domestic public opinion.

The primary goal of the offensive, they write, is to “convince Americans that a new era has arrived in the eight-year long war….” U.S. military officials in Afghanistan “hope a large and loud victory in Marjah will convince the American public that they deserve more time to demonstrate that extra troops and new tactics can yield better results on the battlefield,” according to Jaffe and Whitlock.

A second aim is said to be to demonstrate to Afghans that U.S. forces can protect them from the Taliban.

Despite the far-reaching political implications of the story, the Post buried it on page A9, suggesting that it was not viewed by editors as a major revelation.

Jaffe and Whitlock cite no official sources for the report, but the evidence supporting the main conclusion of the article clearly came from information supplied by military or civilian Pentagon sources. That suggests that officials provided the information on condition that it could not be attributed to any official source.

Some advisers to Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, told him last June that Kandahar City is far more important strategically than Marjah, according to Jaffe and Whitlock.

Marjah is a town of less than 50,000 people, even including the surrounding villages, according to researcher Jeffrey Dressler of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

That makes it about one-tenth the population of Kandahar City. Marjah is only one of a number of logistical centres used by the Taliban in Helmand province, as Dressler observed in a study of Helmand province published by the Institute last September.

Kandahar, on the other hand, is regarded as symbolically important as the place where the Taliban first arose and the location of its leadership organs even during the period of Taliban rule.

Nevertheless, McChrystal decided to commit 15,000 U.S. troops and Afghan troops to get control of Marjah as the first major operation under the new strategy of the Barack Obama administration.

That decision has puzzled many supporters of the war, such as author Steve Coll, who wrote a definitive history of U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and is now executive director of the New America Foundation. Coll wrote in the New Yorker last week that he did not understand “why surging U.S. forces continue to invest their efforts and their numbers so heavily in Helmand.”

Coll pointed to the much greater importance of Kandahar in the larger strategic picture.

The real reason for the decision to attack Marjah, according to Jaffe and Whitlock, was not the intrinsic importance of the objective, but the belief that an operation to seize control of it could “deliver a quick military and political win for McChrystal.”

Choosing Kandahar as the objective of the first major operation under the new strategy would have meant waiting to resolve political rivalries in the province, according to the Post article.

In public comments in recent days, CENTCOM chief Gen. David Petraeus has put forward themes that may be used to frame the Marjah operation and further offensives to come in Kandahar later this year.

Last Thursday, an unnamed “senior military official” told reporters, “This is the start point of a new strategy,” adding, “This is our first salvo.”

On Sunday, Petraeus appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and said the flow of 30,000 new troops that President Obama recently ordered to the region is starting to produce “output”. Marjah is “just the initial operation of what will be a 12-to-18-month campaign,” he said, calling it the “initial salvo”.

Petraeus suggested that Taliban resistance to the offensive in Marjah was intense, as if to underline the importance of Marjah to Taliban strategy. “When we go on the offensive,” said Petraeus, “when we take away sanctuaries and safe havens from the Taliban and other extremist elements…they’re going to fight back.”
In fact, most of the Taliban fighters who had been in Marjah before the beginning of the operation apparently moved out of the town before the fighting started.

Petraeus seemed to be laying the basis for presenting Marjah as a pivotal battle as well as a successful model for the kind of operations to follow.

The Post article implies that Petraeus and McChrystal are concerned that the Obama administration is pushing for a rapid drawdown of U.S. forces after mid-2011. The military believes, according to Jaffe and Whitlock, that a public perception of U.S. military success “would almost certainly mean a slower drawdown.”

As top commander in Iraq in 2007-2008, Petraeus established a new model for reestablishing public support for a war after it had declined precipitously. Through constant briefings to journalists and Congressional delegations, he and his staff convinced political elites and public opinion that his counterinsurgency plan had been responsible for the reduction in insurgent activities that occurred during this command.

Evidence from unofficial sources indicates, however, that the dynamics of Sunni-Shi’a sectarian conflict and Shi’a politics were far more important than U.S. military operations in producing that result.

McChrystal himself seemed to be hinting at the importance of the Marjah offensive’s potential impact on the domestic politics of the war in remarks he made in Istanbul just before it began.

“This is all a war of perceptions,” McChrystal said. “This is not a physical war in terms of how many people you kill or how much ground you capture, how many bridges you blow up. This is all in the minds of the participants.”

McChrystal went on to include U.S. citizens as well as Afghans among those who needed to be convinced. “Part of what we’ve had to do is convince ourselves and our Afghan partners that we can do this,” he said.

The decision to launch a military campaign primarily to shape public opinion is not unprecedented in U.S. military history.

When President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger launched a major bombing campaign against the North Vietnamese capital in late December 1972, they were consciously seeking to influence public opinion to view their policy as much tougher in the final phase of peace negotiations with Hanoi.

The combination of the heavy damage to Hanoi and the administration’s heavy spin about its military pressure on the North Vietnamese contributed to broad acceptance of the later conclusion that Kissinger had gotten a better agreement in Paris in February 1973.

In fact, Kissinger had compromised on all the demands he had made before the bombing began. But the public perception was more important to the Nixon White House.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam”, was published in 2006.

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