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Bill Connor: The Way Forward In Afghanistan

August 16, 2009

By Bill Connor

From May 2007 to May 2008, I served in the Southern Region of Afghanistan, eventually leading the US advisory effort for Helmand Province. The primary forces operating in the south are from NATO partner nations.

While I served in Afghanistan, 60% of the nationwide violence occurred in the Southern Region. The Southern Region was the birthplace of the Taliban, and is also the “breadbasket” of the poppy trade. A primary route of Taliban and Al Qaeda infiltration was up the Helmand River into the rest of the Southern Region and the rest of the country.

A critical problem for the Southern Region has been in the lack of Unity of Command, a critical component to winning a counter-insurgency, as the military and humanitarian efforts must fit together in a comprehensive strategy under the vision of a single commander. Each of the primary NATO nations controls a different province, and maintains certain caveats on the use of their respective national forces based on political considerations, further hindering a coordinated effort. Respective national interests in provinces sometimes trump regional and national directives.

On top of these problems, the advisory effort is not under the regional commander, but receives direction from a separate US command. As the senior American advisor in Helmand, I worked “with” the British forces, yet received orders from the US chain of command working under Central Command and not NATO. The British forces provided advisors, but they were quite stretched for the mission in Helmand.

Helmand recently became the spear point of the surge in Afghanistan when a Marine Expeditionary Brigade from Camp LeJeune was deployed there. I was asked to brief their commanders back in March before they deployed and have followed their operations with interest.

It appears the US commanders have begun to correct the problems within the Southern Region. Over 5000 Marines were deployed to Helmand and have made a substantial effort to take back huge chunks of the Helmand River “Green Zone”. Marines have pushed south, seizing ground, and are working to “hold” and “build” these areas to prevent the Taliban from returning. It appears that the Taliban has faded back into the civilian population or back to Pakistan to prevent destruction. This is why the “hold and build” phases of counter-insurgency become so important. The Marines must help encourage the civilian population of Helmand to support the Afghan National Government and the Afghan National Security Forces.

The long-term key to Afghanistan will come in three areas. First, we fix the unity of command problem. It may hurt feelings, but the Southern Region should be a primarily US region under an American General.

Second, we must develop a comprehensive but clear plan of “success” from the strategic level to the tactical level. In the past, there has been a lack of vision and guidance about the “end state”. What were we really trying to achieve? In speaking with fellow Lt. Colonels deploying to and from Afghanistan, the lack of “end state” guidance is still a problem. Our mission should be to develop enough stability so that another attack on the US cannot be planned and organized from Afghanistan. However, we will not develop a first-world democracy and that should not be our goal – the Afghans will have to work out the development of their country after we leave. Additionally, it appears Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership has moved to the areas of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan. We must put much more effort into ending the sanctuary in Pakistan.

The last key to success will be with putting far greater emphasis on the advisory effort. We must more quickly transition the Afghan National Security Forces to take charge of their own country. This means greatly expanding the size of Afghan Forces and advisors and accepting that they will make have to make mistakes and learn.

The surge of Marines in Helmand is a critically important operation in the short-term. It will expand control of the most violent province of Afghanistan. However, the Obama Administration must develop a better vision of the long-term plan for Afghanistan. The surge in Iraq has succeeded and we can no longer make excuses for lack of planning on the other front. It is time to develop a solid and realistic vision of success and give our military the proper guidance and tools. Those who have sacrificed so much deserve nothing less.

Bill Connor is an attorney residing in Orangeburg. He recently announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for South Carolina Lieutenant Governor.

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