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« Independence Day Picnic | Main | Rather Obscure »

Barry McCaffrey, Meet Bill Roggio

In this morning's Washington Times, Arnaud de Borchgrave summarizes an interview with former Clinton Administration Drug Czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey:

Three years ago the Taliban operated in squad sized units. Last year they operated in company sized units (100 or more men). This year the Taliban are operating in battalion-sized units (400-plus men). So reported retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, professor of international affairs at West Point, after his second trip to Afghanistan to assess the balance of forces.

The former Clinton administration drug czar and commander of the 24th Infantry Division in the Gulf war, Gen. McCaffrey concluded that in the last three years, Taliban has reconstituted the obscurantist movement that took Afghanistan back to the Middle Ages in the 1990s. "They are brutalizing the population," said the general's written report, "and they are now conducting a summer-fall campaign to knock NATO out of the war, capture the provincial capital of Kandahar, isolate the Americans, stop the developing Afghan educational system, stop the liberation of women, and penetrate the new police force and Afghan National Army (ANA)."

Taliban now have "excellent weapons" and "new field equipment" -- prized by the equipment-poor ANA -- and "new IED [improvised explosive devices] technology and commercial communications," Gen. McCaffrey said. "They appear to have received excellent tactical, camouflage and marksmanship training," and "they are very aggressive and smart in their tactics."

"The Afghan Army is miserably underresourced," the report concluded. "This is now a major morale factor for their soldiers. They have shoddy small arms -- described by Defense Minister [Abdul Rahim] Wardak as much worse than he had as a Mujahideen fighting the Soviets 20 years ago.

Contrast that rather gloomy report with Bill Roggio's observations from the front lines:

- The Taliban is unable to stand up against the Western militaries when they attempt to mass in large formations (100 to 300 fighters, equivalent to company or battalion sized units). Their advantage is they know the local terrain far better than the Coalition forces....

The levels of effectiveness of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police varies from unit to unit. The Canadian soldiers trust the army units, but are very wary of police units. Corruption is a major problem with local police formations, as is drug usage (this is also a problem within the Taliban). The ANA and ANP are often poorly armed and trained. But to a man, the Canadian soldiers are impressed with their enthusiasm and courage once a fight breaks out...

The Taliban's weapons are not as sophisticated as the media reports would lead you to believe. Their primary weapons are AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7s (the old variant of the RPG). Rarely are mortars brought to bear on the battlefield. ... Roadside bombs (IEDs), while a threat, have yet to reach either the sophistication or intensity in deployment as they have in Iraq.

The strength of the Taliban lies in their ability to blend in with the local population, and intimidate or coerce the local population when they must. There are small pockets of Taliban safe havens in southeastern Afghanistan. The increase in airstrikes is related to striking at targets of opportunity and the increased operational tempo to weaken the Taliban prior to ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO mission) takes command of the region by the end of the summer.

Roggio spent a few weeks embedded with the Canadians in southeastern Afghanistan, and has more to say about the fighting here, here, and here.

While Roggio and McCaffrey agree that the Taliban are now a Pakistan-based operation, the tenor of their reports is completely different. McCaffrey claims the Taliban operate in battalion-sized units. But Roggio reports that every time they try this, they get killed by the hundreds. McCaffrey reports sophisticated IEDs. Roggio doesn't report seeing any. McCaffrey doesn't seem to have a very high opinion of the NATO troops holding things down in the south. Roggio gives the Canadians there a very good report.

Weekly reports of substantial Taliban deaths and injuries, sustained in firefights that rarely take NATO or US life, would seem to support his take on things. If the Taliban are fighting an offensive to drive NATO out of Kandahar using such tactics, their success will be as delayed as the fearsome Afghan winter.

And McCaffrey's report is internally inconsistent. A summer/fall offensive that could dislodge the Americans from Kandahar would hardly be the tactic of choice for someone seeking to wait us out. (After 2001/02, do they still not think we can operate in the winter over there?) It would seem to require a great deal more operational capability than Roggio is reporting that he's seeing. Unless the Taliban are merely throwing thousands of their men down the disposal unit in order to ferret out NATO tactics.

The point here isn't that McCaffrey doesn't know what he's talking about. McCaffrey's an experienced military man, who fought in the first Gulf War against Saddam. But militaries almost always overestimate the enemy and underestimate our allies. It's good, sound, conservative thinking that keeps your men from getting killed. But it can also lead you to overcommit resources and move with undue caution, costing you opportunities.

Suppose we took Gen. McCaffrey's advice, and suppose we took it retroactively. Suppose we had committed 100,000 men to Afghanistan. What would that have accomplished? We still couldn't pursue them over the border into Pakistan, a border that the Pakistani government takes seriously with regard to our operations, even if the Pushtun don't. We wouldn't control Afghanistan any more firmly than we do now; we'd have a higher profile, possibly alienating the local Afghans.

In the meantime, Saddam would have gotten his bought-and-paid-for friends on the Security Council to remove the sanctions regime, he'd be back to manufacturing WMDs, possibly handing them out to non-state actors, and threatening worse if we didn't let him have the southern and northern thirds of his country back to practice on. We'd be too "tied down" in Afghanistan to respond, and we'd no doubt be hearing about our mistaken "quagmire" in Afghanistan that could have been averted with more subtle diplomacy.

Like, you know, getting the Europeans to help us track bank transactions.


Excellent post and a most accurate analysis of the widely divergent views of Bill Roggio and Gen McCaffrey. I hosted Bill during his stay in Kabul and have been in Afghanistan for the past 18 months. I agree with Bill’s assessment and thus have no idea what the good General was talking about. I did not have much of a clue what he was talking about when he was active duty and during his drug warrior years either so no surprise there. As a guy who makes his living providing security assessments to NGO and other business’s operating throughout Afghanistan I can tell you that Bill’s take on things is spot on. That is probably due to the fact that Bill actually embeds and lives the local experience. The good General flies in on private air and stays at the Serena – the only times he sees the real Afghanistan is when his convoy of armored SUV’s slows down on the way to and from the airport. Easy to get fooled when you live that way and as a former grunt McCaffrey should know better.

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