Continuing my analysis of the Afghanistan Study Group's new proposal...
2. Scale Back and Eventually Suspend Combat Operations in the South and Reduce the U.S. Military Footprint. Simultaneous to these efforts at achieving a new, more stable political equilibrium in the country, the U.S. should downsize and eventually discontinue combat operations in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. needs to draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and often aids the Taliban’s recruitment effort.
The Study Group recommends that President Obama firmly stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in the summer of 2011—and earlier if possible. U.S. force levels should decline to the minimum level needed to help train Afghan security forces, prevent massive human rights atrocities, resist an expansion of Taliban control beyond the Pashtun south, and engage in robust counter-terrorism operations as needed. We recommend a decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012. These residual force levels should be reviewed as to whether they are contributing to our broader strategic objectives in the fall of 2012 – and if not, withdrawn in full over time.
This step would save the U.S. at least $60 billion to $80 billion per year and reduce local resentment at our large and intrusive military presence.
There's no doubt that the presence of Western combat troops in southern Pashtun areas piss off the local populace, but their reaction is based not on our presence per se, but on our presence without providing security and development. The southern portion of Afghanistan, mainly the Kandahar and Helmand Provinces, have been largely neglected since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. The region is mostly vastly flat desert (except the "green zone" surrounding the Helmand River) with a low population density. This region served, and continues to serve, as the main artery of transport of opium to Pakistan and Iran and transport of weapons and supplies for the Taliban and al Qaeda located inside Afghanistan. Until 2009, British and American forces adopted a "hands off" approach and did not interdict drug or weapons shipments.
The US must adopt a three pronged strategy for the south.
First, the US must adopt a comprehensive and sensible opium policy. Rather than destroy the crops, the US should purchase the opium directly from the farmers and adopt a phased-in approach of conversion to food crops. Farmers get paid market price for their opium in exchange that they convert 20% of their arable land each year.
Second, the US must adopt an Iraq-based strategy on a much larger scale. Becasue inhabitants are widely spread out, company-sized units must deploy to small villages so that their spheres of influence cover the majority of each province. Fire support bases will be strategically located to provide indirect fire support. The localized combat units will be assigned NGO and State Department personnel, so that civilian reconstruction projects may proceed with security. The key to winning support is security and development on the local scale, not on the national scale. The goals of the development teams (similar to the PRTs currently operating in Afghanistan) is to align with the provincial governors (not Kabul).
Third, the US must establish a substantial forward operating base in the south. This would provide logistical support and air support assets (A-10/Apaches/etc.) for localized combat units. Additionally, it would provide advanced medical support for civilians and a staging point for airstrikes into South Waziristan and Balochistan in the FATA. The presence of a large FOB would assuredly draw militants into an open confrontation. With the decreased chance of civilian casualties (sparsely populated region), this would provide military units the opportunity to bring all assets to bear in a direct action confrontation.