Former Pentagon Chief Sees Long-Term US Mission in Afghanistan

Soldiers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division and Afghan National Army troops from 201st Corps conduct a partnered force protection patrol in Laghman province Sept. 23, 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jarrod Morris)
Soldiers from 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division and Afghan National Army troops from 201st Corps conduct a partnered force protection patrol in Laghman province Sept. 23, 2015. (U.S. Army photo by Capt. Jarrod Morris)

Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says he's now convinced the United States must help bring stability to Afghanistan, even if that means recommitting large numbers of U.S. air and ground forces and keeping a presence there indefinitely.

Panetta served as Pentagon chief when more than 100,000 U.S. troops operated in Afghanistan. Now four years into his retirement, he's joining the growing number of voices calling for a new and aggressive strategy aimed at ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban and other terrorists groups.

"The one thing that is very clear is that it is time for a new and more effective strategy for how we can try to restore stability in Afghanistan," Panetta recently told Military.com.

"It seems to me that there has to be a serious look at what is the larger strategy," he said. "You've got ISIS and the Taliban in control of over 40 percent of the country; that's unacceptable," he added, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"So, one of the first targets of a new strategy would be how do we regain those areas that we have lost control of and how do we maintain control of those areas," he said.

The Pentagon and the White House face increasing pressure from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain and other lawmakers to accomplish what has become a nearly 16-year mission to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for terrorist networks.

But as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prepares to unveil a new strategy for Afghanistan in July, it's becoming clear to former military leaders and combat veterans that any solution will have to involve a long-term U.S. troop presence in the region.

"Right now there is a lack of political will in this country to deal with what I call the forgotten war," Retired Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Jack Keane told Military.com.

Keane characterized Afghanistan and the surrounding region as a "breeding ground" for terrorist organizations.

"You have to recognize that ... U.S. vital national interests are at stake here because it is directly related to the security of the American people," he said. "It's a disgrace that it has been 16 years, and we have not brought this to a favorable conclusion, which is certainly within our capability."

Currently about 8,400 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan forces and hunting terrorist networks, excluding as many as a couple of thousand American service members in the country on a temporary basis. In addition, there are about 5,000 NATO and allied troops in the country. Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and NATO and coalition troops, has asked to increase the U.S. presence by 3,000 to 5,000 troops.

Keane, a respected military leader who was one of the architects of the 2007 strategy to surge additional U.S. forces into Iraq, maintains that 3,000 to 5,000 troops isn't enough to change the momentum of the conflict in Afghanistan.

Keane has publicly argued the U.S. will have to increase its troop presence by 10,000 to 20,000 to begin to properly support the Afghan army, which is mostly an infantry-based force.

The Obama Administration's decision to shrink the U.S. presence in Afghanistan by about 100,000 troops took away many of the combat enablers that the Afghan army simply do not have, Keane maintains.

"We can't strip the Afghans of all these enablers they had. What am I talking about -- anti-IED capability, medevac, Apache helicopters, close-air support, intelligence, communications and logistics -- things that make an army function effectively."

"So some of that capacity you have to put back. I don't know what the right number is," he said. "I'm not privy to the data that our military commanders have had, but I do know we have to put some of that capability back."

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and Vietnam War veteran, characterized Nicholson's modest troop-increase proposal as a "Goldilocks" response.

"It avoids the core issue which is this: exactly how important is Afghanistan to the United States? If pacifying Afghanistan qualifies as a national security interest, then accomplishing the mission will take a lot more than 4,000 additional troops -- and they'll probably have to stay for a couple more decades, while consuming trillions of dollars," Bacevich told Military.com.

A former professor of history and international relations at Boston University, Bacevich was a long-time critic of America's war in Iraq. His 27-year-old son, 1st Lt. Andrew J. Bacevich, was killed by a bomb while on patrol in Balad, Iraq, in 2007.

In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, Bacevich wrote that "some wars can't be won. Afghanistan falls in that category."

When Military.com asked him to explain further, Bacevich responded by saying "because the world's best military has been trying to win for sixteen years and has failed to do so."

Keane disagrees with Bacevich.

"That is the same thing we heard in Iraq by the same group of people when they said we couldn't turn the war around in Iraq -- of course you can," Keane said.

"The overwhelming majority of all insurgencies are defeated," he said. "Government resources usually can outlast insurgents' resources, which is largely the reason why they are defeated.

"Insurgents, though they may be determined, are fighting with light weapons AK47, [rocket-propelled grenades] and homemade explosive devices," he said, "and if we had the political will and moral courage to tell the American people the truth, we certainly have the capability to defeat the Taliban."

Bill Duttweiler, a captain in the Marine Corps Reserve, said he isn't sure sending large numbers of troops back into Afghanistan is the answer.

During his active service, Duttweiler served in Helmand Province on a police advisory team in Musa Qala District from November 2012 to June 2013.

"I was on the ground and advising Afghans; that's who I worked with every day. I saw more Afghans than I saw Marines," Duttweiler said.

"I had a personal interest in them having success," he said. "Two weeks ago, the Taliban claimed Musa Qala as the Taliban capital of Helmand -- that doesn't make me feel good because most of those guys are probably dead."

Duttweiler said he isn't sure what to do, but leaving is not an option.

"We have a responsibility to fix this," he said.

Duttweiler said a new strategy will have to eliminate the safe haven terrorist groups have across the border into Pakistan.

"I don't think it will be successful if we don't have cross-border support from Pakistan," he said.

That point has also been part of Keane's message.

"It has got to be a comprehensive strategy, that is at first, regional, in terms of U.S. national interests, yet specific as to a Pakistan and Afghanistan," Keane said.

"In Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban have two safe havens where the Taliban leadership are based, fighters are refreshed and trained, while the Pak military who, is supposedly our ally, provides intelligence and resources to the Taliban," he said. "This has got to stop either voluntarily by the Pak military to deny safe haven or the U.S. will target and destroy them."

"The other strategy is specific to Afghanistan in terms of the political, economic and military situation," he added. "The government of Afghanistan needs to be supported and sustained while insisting on political and institutional reform."

Panetta said his biggest regret is the United States never seriously thought about what it was going to take to ensure that Afghanistan remained secure.

"I think we did a good job training the force there; I think we did a good job of trying to build the Afghan capabilities," Panetta said. "But very frankly, I don't think we ever asked the question of what presence is going to be required there over the long term to make sure that we assure ourselves stability in Afghanistan."

The U.S. can't continue to "dribble force in there and have to constantly try to backfill because it's not working," Panetta said.

"You want to be able to have some confidence; whatever number you decide -- whether its 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 -- is going to have a better than 50-50 chance of being able to be successful, and you don't have that right now," Panetta said.

"I think we are going to have to maintain a troop presence in Afghanistan for the long-term," he added. "This is not something we are going to be able to turn around in just a few years."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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