President Obama arrived Tuesday in Afghanistan to sign an agreement outlining how the United States will transition from an occupying power to an arms-length partner with the government in Kabul. Some critics will doubtless criticize Obama for wanting to leave too quickly, possibly jeopardizing whatever successes have been made. But Roger Carstens, a retired Green Beret who served as one of the architects of the current Afghan counter-insurgency strategy, will not be among them.
In an interview Carstens told The Daily Beast that the best thing the United States can do now in Afghanistan is begin to leave—as quickly as possible. Speaking by phone from Somalia, where he is currently researching cost-effective ways to fight small wars, Carstens said President Obama is heading in the right direction with his May 1 announcement. “If anything, I would move up the timeline for transitioning security responsibility to the Afghans,” he said. “They simply must be made to feel the pressure of winning this war—their war—sooner rather than later.”
But Carstens is not recommending a full-scale pullout. He said the United States and its allies will have to remain behind in smaller numbers to provide assistance—a role that he believes is proper in a counter-insurgency.
”The Strategic Partnering Agreement looks good to me, as it accounts for a long-term advisory role for the United States,” he told The Daily Beast. “The key now is implementation. How will we shape and conduct advisory [efforts] and assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces as we move towards 2014 and beyond? We will need to put our best combat leaders in positions where they can provide the most value to the Afghans.”
Carstens is in a unique position to evaluate the war. He not only helped write the counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan, but he also later served as the lead civilian in charge of the team that assessed the strategy’s implementation at the brigade, battalion, and unit level. As the head of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team in Afghanistan, Carstens gave regular briefings to the three U.S. generals who commanded the war since mid-2009.
At 47, Carstens looks just as you would expect a former Green Beret to look. He has a movie star’s dimpled chin and a strong jaw, often stubbly with growth after a few days in the wilds without running water. He embodies the can-do spirit of someone whose job was to train Third World soldiers to fight with the discipline of First World armies.
But Carstens is also a realist, and he thinks the war plan he helped draft for Afghanistan is unsustainable, and it mistakenly puts the responsibility for success in Afghanistan on the United States and its allies.
“We will finally win the war when we start to depart and the onus of combat operations and running this country truly falls on the shoulders of the Afghans,” he said in an earlier interview with The Daily Beast in Somalia. “As long as we keep fighting this war for them, as long as we keep showing up with bags of money ... then they will be happy to sit back, let us do it, criticize from the side, and engage in corruption, because their backs are not against the wall.”
Central to the war plan in Afghanistan is the strategy known as COIN, or counter-insurgency. Unlike conventional warfare, COIN’s success is measured in terms of hearts and minds: winning over the population to the side of the government. In addition to night raids and drone strikes, it involves jobs programs, police training, and the provision of basic social services.
By the time President Obama came to office in 2008, proponents of this strategy—the so-called coindinistas—were ascendant inside the military. Obama sought to replicate the success of COIN strategy in Iraq for Afghanistan.
But Obama also inherited massive debt and a cratering economy, and military occupations are very expensive. Carstens has several critiques of the war in Afghanistan, but his main one is that the United States spent too much money and time trying to build up the Afghan National Security Forces at levels that were unsustainable. (It costs $6 billion a year to sustain the Afghan security forces today.)
By this summer, there are supposed to be 352,000 Afghan police and soldiers trained largely by the United States. It is this massive force Obama hopes to turn the country over to in 2014 when almost all U.S. troops are supposed to be gone. But this force is just not very good. While Carstens said some of the Afghan troops fought as hard as their American counterparts, most did not. “A lot of them aren’t that well trained, a lot of them are corrupt, a lot of them are not eager to go out and fight the enemy,” he said.
Yet now that the Afghan forces have been built up, Carstens also worries about plans to cut their size prematurely. “If you build an army and train everyone and give them weapons, you better make sure you are going to sustain it for a while, because at a certain point you don’t want to cut off the funding and watch these guys go back to warlordism and have to think, ‘Wow, we sure armed and trained a lot of people for the next civil war.’”
For now, President Obama appears to appreciate the gravity of this challenge. The new strategic partnership agreement he signed Tuesday with President Karzai commits American assistance to Afghanistan for 10 years after the Afghans take full control of security in 2014. (American forces will be able to continue using bases in Afghanistan after that date for training and counter-terrorism.)
A senior administration official speaking to reporters Tuesday on a conference call said the Afghan government was committed to maintaining the Afghan National Security Forces at the 352,000 level. Spencer Ackerman of Wired magazine reported last month, however, that Afghanistan’s defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, has proposed to cut the force to 230,000 soldiers and cops after 2014.