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Afghan Withdrawal Would Undermine Local Security Effort (UPDATED)

8:28 AM, Jun 21, 2011 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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The Los Angeles Times reports:

Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank, said he did not expect the withdrawal of 10,000 U.S. troops to cause security conditions to worsen in southern Afghanistan. He said the U.S. and the Afghan government were recruiting local police units that, along with Afghan army units, could help fill the gap.

"With the increasing…[U.S.] move toward a strategy that involved local security forces, I think that the U.S. can make do with a smaller force," said Jones, who was an advisor to special operations units in Afghanistan until earlier this year. "I don't think 10,000 is going to have a meaningful impact on the strategy."

Local security forces do not offset the risks incurred by premature withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan. In fact, premature withdrawal of combat forces undermines the local security effort. Local security forces operate in remote areas that have either been cleared or that were not enemy safe-havens to begin with. They cannot by themselves clear enemy-held areas, nor can they withstand concerted enemy attacks from nearby safe-havens without support from U.S. mentors, Afghan National Security Forces, and sometimes U.S. enablers. They operate to extend security outside of population centers and hold cleared areas.

Above all, enrollment in local security forces is driven by conviction on the part of the local population that ISAF and the Afghan government will win. Removing conventional forces puts that conviction into question, will encourage more Afghans to sit on the fence, and can undermine the entire local security effort. Local security forces, finally, number on the close order of 6,000—remember that there were over 100,000 Sons of Iraq. Increasing their numbers depends on having requisite numbers of partners and mentors, both U.S. and Afghan. We would be hard pressed to add 10,000 local security forces every six months—even if we could assume that there is a one-for-one tradeoff between U.S. forces and local forces, which there is not.

UPDATE: Seth Jones, whose quotation in the Los Angeles Times we've quoted above, writes:

The Los Angeles Times took my quote out of text. I argued that, over the long run, the United States should be able to make up a declining number of U.S. forces with a growing number of more competent Afghan national and local security forces. In addition, the United States may be able to trim its large logistical tail (including military analysts and contractors) at several of its largest bases, such as Kandahar Air Field and Bagram. However, taking out combat forces that are deployed to key areas of the south and east, which have witnessed fragile progress, has substantial risks.

We were surprised to see Jones’s quotation appear in that context—not surprised now, thanks to his explanation—and apologize to Jones. The local security forces argument is prevalent in policy circles in the exaggerated form that we criticized (though it is not, thankfully, being propounded by Jones), and it remains dangerous to the local security forces in Afghanistan – as well as to the nation writ large.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and director of its Critical Threats Project. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.

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