Preparing For Years In Afghanistan

The Pentagon’s senior military leaders are worried that the security situation in Afghanistan is stalemated or deteriorating, and now are preparing a far-reaching plan that would prepare the U.S. military for a war that could last three to five more years, officials said.

The effort, which is being coordinated by the Joint Staff and is still in its early stages, is designed to create an experienced cadre of officers and senior enlisted soldiers, who would rotate between assignments in Afghanistan and at their home stations until the end of hostilities.

By doing so, the Pentagon hopes to end a problem that has plagued the effort in Afghanistan—the lack of familiarity with local conditions by U.S. forces who rotate in and then depart after a year, just when they are beginning to understand the area or the mission where they are assigned.

“These would be small groups who would deploy together for shorter periods, going back and forth to the same place and the same mission again and again, so they would know the culture and the terrain,” said a senior Pentagon official briefed on the plan, who said the teams could be asked to conduct training or other specialized counterinsurgency missions.

Until now, officers involved say, the Afghanistan war has been a secondary concern for the Pentagon, which has tended to view it as a short-term mission that took a back seat to the war in Iraq. “This is about finding an alternative scheme that allows us to provide continuity in Afghanistan without burning people out,” said the senior military official.

The plan envisions adding hundreds of personnel to the effort – on top of the 21,000 additional troops that President Barack Obama has ordered to Afghanistan.

But the Joint Staff ideas may conflict to some degree with Obama’s timetable. He has seemed reluctant about getting involved in a long-term effort in Afghanistan, though he not yet to made explicit his own timetable for the war. In announcing his strategy last month, he made clear his desire for turning over the lead combat role as quickly as possible to Afghan Army and police units.

When the plan was briefed to military services and combatant commands earlier this month, senior Joint Staff officers bluntly declared that the security situation across Afghanistan is “poor, stalemated, or deteriorating,” according to an official who was present. They also warned that the military ought to prepare for the conflict to last another three to five years.

That message—that winning in Afghanistan will require a long-term commitment—was intentionally blunt and meant to make clear to the hidebound Pentagon that changes in the way it has conducted the war will be required, officers involved said.

The idea of using shorter tours and returning to the same places repeatedly has been used for years by Marines and Special Forces units operated in Iraq. But the Joint Staff plan would clash with longstanding practices in the Army and other services, disrupting promotion schedules and normal deployment practices.

In the Army, for example, most officers do a tour in a combat unit, and then are reassigned to a new unit in an entirely different job. The Joint staff plan would change those practices, at least for the officers and enlisted soldiers chosen as members of these new teams.

One of the issues still to be resolved is how to restructure promotion system so that top-flight officers would not worry their careers could suffer if they spend multiple years in the same assignment, officials said.

“If we don’t do this, it will show we’re still not serious,” about the war in Afghanistan, said a Pentagon official briefed on the plan.

The architect of the new approach is General Stan McCrystal, who commanded the Special Forces effort in Iraq and now is the head of the Joint Staff, officials said. The concept is also supported by Admiral ike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs,

Mullen returned recently from a trip to the region in which he heard repeated complaints that U.S. officers assigned to the war finish their tours and rotate out just as they are finally becoming familiar enough with Afghanistan to be truly effective.

One of the factors driving the Pentagon to step up its effort is concern that public support for the war both in the U.S. and Europe could wane, forcing a withdrawal before the security situation has stabilized, officials said. Obama has also called for greater civilian effort in Afghanistan, but the Pentagon, with its massive resources, is in some ways in a better position to expand its effort than the State Departtment and other civilian agencies.

Until now, officers involved say, the Afghanistan war has been a secondary concern for the Pentagon, which has tended to view it as a short-term mission that took a back seat to the war in Iraq. “This is about finding an alternative scheme that allows us to provide continuity in Afghanistan without burning people out,” said the senior military official.
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