23 July 2008

Troops, Surges, and ROE

It sure seems like there is a lot of chatter about what the “surge” of troops did or did not accomplish in Iraq. That violence has, according to the Pentagon, “dropped by between 40 and 80 percent since February 2007” doesn’t seem to register in some quarters – namely the Obama campaign. Or rather, the cause of the drop in violence was a product of something else.

Indeed, the drop in violence has in large part a product of something else, something wholly tied to the “surge” but perhaps not recognized as much as it ought to be. When General Petraeus asked for more troops, it was not to necessarily “saturate” the country with American soldiers and Marines. Along with more troops came a change in strategy, a major shift in the Rules of Engagement (ROE). Whereas earlier ROE was cumbersome and restrictive, Gen. Petraeus changed things so that troops could “take and hold” areas of the country. Taking and holding ground provides security; security requires more troops. Thus, the change in ROE necessitated more troops. The importance of this will become evident shortly.

With security came the space and time for the Iraqi’s to find their own way to something that looks a whole lot more like national unity. That Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki sees a day in the future where American troops can exit the country is a positive sign – and is a direct result of the change in strategy put forward my Gen. Petraeus and advocated by Sen. McCain. Comments to the contrary, I believe, miss the mark considerably.

So when politicians like Sen. Obama and Sen. McCain begin to talk about more troops for Afghanistan, it is important to understand that more boots on the ground does not a victory beget. Strategy and ROE are keys to success; numbers of boots on the ground (or in the air, or on the water) are a function of mission and strategy – as well as availability. One should also remember that by in large, the Afghanistan operation is now a NATO mission, which means ROE is awash with all of the political idiosyncrasies of participating nations. What one nation’s soldiers can do, another’s cannot. American ROE, historically, is much more permissive than other countries’ ROE. Dictating a single set of ROE requires unity of command and political buy-in of those fighting in theater. Creating such a situation would prove quite problematic politically.

In order to accomplish a “surge” type mission in Afghanistan, would Sen. Obama or McCain advocate a unified mission and ROE for all NATO players in theater? Would either of them press for the US to take over combat operations within trouble areas? How much cooperation would we give, or could we expect, in such a scenario? These are tough questions to answer, but if the electorate is to place their trust in either of these men, they ought to be asking for answers to questions like these, especially as both candidates are pushing for more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. One may also ask why Sen. Obama, who still feels that the Iraq “surge” was and is a failure and who after a trip to the country has not changed his mind about its efficacy, would advocate what looks to be an identical strategy for Afghanistan.

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