WASHINGTON – Adm. Bill McRaven, the head of U.S. special operations, is mapping out a potential Afghanistan war plan that would replace thousands of U.S. troops with small special operations teams paired with Afghans to help an inexperienced Afghan force withstand a Taliban onslaught as U.S. troops withdraw.
While the overall campaign would still be led by conventional military, the handfuls of special operators would become the leading force to help Afghans secure the large tracts of territory won in more than a decade of U.S. combat. They would give the Afghans practical advice on how to repel attacks, intelligence to help spot the enemy and communications to help call for U.S. air support if overwhelmed by a superior force.
If approved by the administration, the pared-down structure could become the enduring force that Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak indicated Tuesday at the Pentagon that his country needs, possibly long after the U.S. drawdown date of 2014.
McRaven’s proposal amounts to a slimmed-down counterinsurgency strategy aimed at protecting the Afghan population as well as hunting the Taliban and al-Qaida. It’s not the counterterrorist plan advanced by Vice President Joe Biden, which would leave Afghan forces to fend for themselves while keeping U.S. special operators in protected bases from which they could hunt terrorists with minimum risk, according to a senior special operations official reached this week.
Thousands of U.S. troops could remain in harm’s way well after the end of combat operations in 2014, tasked with helping Afghans protect territory won by U.S. forces.
The special operations proposal was sketched out at special operations headquarters in Tampa, Fla., in mid-February, with Central Command’s Gen. James Mattis and overall Afghanistan war commander Gen. John Allen taking part, according to several high-level special operations officials and other U.S. officials involved in the war planning. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposal has not yet been presented to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or the White House.
The Pentagon asked the top officials to draft proposals to present to the White House after NATO allies decide how large a force to keep in Afghanistan, according to a U.S. official familiar with the administration’s deliberations.
Leaders of NATO nations are to meet May 20-21 in Chicago to discuss the war, among other issues.
The Pentagon by September will draw down the 23,000 troops that remain from the surge of 33,000 troops sent to Afghanistan in 2010 to buy time for the Afghan military and government to build both the numbers and expertise necessary to defend and govern themselves. Plans for the remaining 68,000 troops in Afghanistan are not yet complete, but most U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Allen, the commander of forces in Afghanistan, has indicated he would like to keep as many troops on the ground for as long as possible. But with a solid majority of Americans now against the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan and the sped-up departure of some of America’s NATO allies from the war zone, the Obama administration is feeling some pressure toward a faster drawdown.
The McRaven plan could provide a way to shrink troop numbers quickly without leaving a security vacuum as U.S. troops depart, as has happened in Afghanistan before when NATO forces left an area.
“This is the least bad option,” said retired Marine Col. T.X. Hammes, senior fellow at the National Defense University and longtime critic of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. “It’s probably the smartest thing we could do to keep the Afghan government functioning long enough to safely withdraw.”
In the back-of-the-envelope version of the strategy, a couple thousand special operators, like Navy SEALs and the Army’s Delta Force, would keep working with Afghan special forces to raid terrorist targets, the senior special operations official explained.
U.S. commanders would seek to keep the same number of defense intelligence troops in country to feed data to the smaller force and would also rely heavily on the CIA for intelligence, while an as-yet-undetermined number of conventional forces would provide everything from air to logistical support to keep all the special operations teams running, officials said.
Some two-thirds of the roughly 6,000-strong special operations force would head to Afghanistan’s rural towns and villages to advise inexperienced Afghan forces. This would include expanding the Village Stability Operations program in Afghan villages, in which special operators help what is essentially an Afghan government-backed armed neighborhood watch to keep the peace.
Reliance on the program already had forced it to grow so quickly, however, that U.S. commanders had put regular military forces into some of the sites. That is how Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a regular soldier with no prior Afghanistan experience, ended up at one of the sites. He stands accused of killing 17 Afghan villagers in a shooting spree last month.
U.S. officials say they will take more care with selecting who gets deployed into such sensitive and remote posts in the future.
The commanders building the new team also would draw heavily from the group known as “Afghan Pakistan hands,” the 700-plus force of troops and civilians given months of extra language training in Pashtu, Dari or Urdu, the three main languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials say. Around 50 of the “hands” are deployed to the Village Stability Operations to serve as translators, both of language and culture, between special operations troops, Afghan government officials and local villagers.
The insider knowledge of both the “hands” group and the special operators with multiple Afghan tours is intended to minimize the chance of further antagonizing Afghans and driving them to support the Taliban.
U.S.-Afghan relations have been strained in the past year, exacerbated by the killings of at least 16 U.S. and NATO troops by their Afghan allies in recent months, the inadvertent burnings of Qurans by U.S. troops in January and the shootings of the 17 Afghan villagers. Afghan President Hamid Karzai initially asked that the U.S. retreat from rural areas.