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Afghanistan: Force Consolidation Offensive or Defensive?

Following the Taliban-al-Qaeda overrunning of a US FOB in Wanat (now abandoned), one of the latest in a significant increase in Taliban-al-Qaeda attacks, US forces returned fire on the Taliban inside Pakistan in response to another recent shelling. Also being reported is a buildup of US forces along the Pakistani border. The question is one of intent. Pakistanis suggest that the US is preparing for an ground incursion.

Tribesmen in North Waziristan, who shelter power Taliban leaders such as the Haqqani family and Gul Bahadar, vowed to defend their territory from any US incursion. “More than three million tribesmen would fight along the Pakistani security forces if foreign troops enter the Tribal Areas,” Malik Afzal Khan told the Daily Times. The tribes also vowed to support the Pakistani Army against any US invasion.

The reports of troop movements have not been confirmed by ISAF or the US military. But the likelihood is US troops are reinforcing established positions and building new ones in the region due to the heavy volume of Taliban attacks over the past several months, and in light of the Taliban and al Qaeda attack that came close to overrunning the forward outpost in Nuristan last weekend. The buildup in eastern Afghanistan comes as Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a surprise visit to Pakistan and expressed concern and frustration over the rise of extremist groups in northwestern Pakistan and the impact on Afghanistan’s security.

Roggio’s report is almost certainly correct in concluding a likely defensive posture. A couple things to keep in mind here.

First, the massing of 300-500 troops is not sufficient for any significant operation into rugged terrain and territory in which you have had no assets in place. And if the operation is not significant in size and scope, it is highly unlikely that US commanders are going to risk the lives of their troops simply to stage a show of force.

Second, much of the Taliban-al-Qaeda attacks have been cross-border shelling. It is not lost on American commanders that they could be being baited with a rather unpleasant surprise in store on Pakistani mountainsides. Keep clearly in mind that our Apache and Cobra ground support attack helicopters are the new HIND’s.

Third, it should be kept squarely in mind that al-Qaeda no longer sees Iraq as a theater requiring significant investment - nearly a lost cause. As such, the available resources - human and otherwise - can be funneled and brought to bear either at arm’s reach northwest into Afghanistan or at arm’s reach southeast into the heart of Pakistan. That they are reaching northwest into Afghan territory may bring Pakistan deceptive comfort for the time being, a kinetic reach by the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance in neither direction would bring comfort to a sober American observer. The consequences of either are equally fraught in different ways with strategic peril and cost.

At the same time, it would be more than helpful if some of our NATO allies with contingents in Afghanistan would issue their forces ROEs(Rules Of Engagement) that did not forbid the “E.”

Compounding matters, the Pakistani military and paramilitary forces have already been defeated on the ground in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and North West Frontier Province, and as such we - like 2001 and 2002 - still lack a reliable (let alone cooperative) anvil into which to swing any hammer through the Taliban-al-Qaeda dominated regions.

Be assured: No matter how much the international community insisted that the proper fight was in Afghanistan in objection to the Iraq invasion, we remain the only nation with the political will and fortitude to commit to the fight. Sure, we have a ‘coalition.’ But we bear the burden of nearly all of the risk and its consequences with few but notable exceptions, such as Canada.

And so we stand, virtually alone. As we’ve been there before, this is not a proclamation of doom, but rather simply an expression of frustration and an acknowledgment of the situation.