Michele Flournoy's Afghan intervention


U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Michele Flournoy, is seen during a bilateral meeting with China's Deputy Chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, Ma Xiaotian, at the Bayi Building in Beijing December 7, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • Now that Michele Flournoy is considered a candidate to succeed Panetta, it’s important that she be judged on her merits.

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  • As a result of Gen. Caldwell and Ms. Flournoy's strong support, the Afghan National Security Forces grew to 305,000.

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  • No matter who is nominated for defense secretary, senators should ask why we are planning to cut ANSF forces by a third?

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Now that Michele Flournoy is being mentioned as a serious candidate to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, it is important that she be judged on her merits—not because she'd be the first woman in that job, not simply because she was an effective defender of President Obama's policies during the recent campaign, and not because she isn't Chuck Hagel.

Having only a slight acquaintance with Ms. Flournoy, I can't judge her overall record or compare her with other candidates. But I do know that she made a critical contribution as undersecretary of defense for policy to what could be the Obama administration's most important achievement in Afghanistan, the substantial strengthening of that country's own security forces.

That achievement is not one that I've seen reported before. I only know of it because Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, who was previously my senior military assistant, told me about the support Ms. Flournoy provided him when he was in charge of training the Afghan army and police from 2009 to 2011. This story demonstrates some qualities that Democrats and Republicans alike should be looking for in a secretary of defense.

Gen. Caldwell was sent to Afghanistan in November 2009 to take charge of training the Afghan National Security Forces (or ANSF, principally consisting of the army and the national police). Ms. Flournoy told him—very correctly—that his mission held the key to U.S. success, and she didn't think we were doing well. "I'm not sure what it takes to do better, but we must," she said. "I hope you will tell me what we need."

In truth, the training mission was on the brink of failure. More personnel had left the ANSF in the previous month than had joined it.

Gen. Caldwell quickly concluded that he couldn't get the job done with just the 1,200 U.S. troops in his command. At a minimum, he told the NATO command in Afghanistan, he needed two or three thousand more. But the command's priority was for combat troops, not trainers, and his request was turned down. He was told to make do with what he had.

The story might have ended there if Gen. Caldwell hadn't received a clear mandate from Ms. Flournoy. Preferring to incur the ire of the theater command than to see the training mission fail, he reported the problem to Ms. Flournoy, who immediately took it up with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Quickly, with what is remarkable speed for the Pentagon, Gen. Caldwell learned that the next battalion headed to Afghanistan—the 2-22 Infantry Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division—was being reassigned from a combat mission to a training mission.

As a result of his leadership and Ms. Flournoy's strong support, the ANSF grew to 305,000 over the next two years from just under 200,000. It reached 352,000 this October. Ms. Flournoy's role was also important in improving the quality of Afghan forces, particularly in backing Gen. Caldwell in the face of objections that training in civilian skills, such as basic literacy, wasn't part of his mission.

The overall quality of the ANSF is still poor by U.S. standards. And the much-discussed problem of "green on blue" attacks by supposedly friendly Afghans on Americans and other coalition troops—which have killed 61 U.S. and coalition personnel this year—is very disturbing. But that number is dwarfed by the much less discussed number of ANSF personnel killed in action—roughly 3,400 this year alone—which is 10 times our own losses and more than the total of all coalition fatalities (roughly 2,160 U.S. and 1,069 non-U.S.) during the 11 years of this long war.

Those are grim numbers, but they show that Afghans are bearing an increasing share of the war's burden—as well they should. But in defending their own country they are also helping us, because the U.S. has a vital stake in preventing the Taliban from returning to power. Ms. Flournoy grasped that central strategic point and pursued it with bureaucratic deftness, without seeking publicity for what she had done.

The qualitative problems of the ANSF are real, and there are major gaps in air and medical support and logistics. But we should view it as a glass half-full and work to fill it. We should not prematurely expect Afghan units to operate independently, even without air support, which few U.S. units are expected to do. All of which makes one question the wisdom of reported plans to cut the ANSF back to 230,000 personnel after 2014.

No matter who is nominated for secretary of defense, senators should ask that person why—after overcoming huge challenges to build the ANSF to its present size—are we planning to cut its forces by a third? Is that based on a military requirement or a prediction that the Taliban will be weakened so much that a much smaller force will suffice? Is it because of a belief that a better-trained, higher-quality smaller force will compensate for the loss of quantity?

And are there plans for what will happen to 100,000 personnel with military training cut loose in an economy that will be hurting from the departure of so many coalition personnel? Or is it simply a matter of what Washington is willing to pay for, since the Afghan economy is far too weak to support the ANSF levels required to get the job done?

If that is the real reason, it would seem to be a case of "penny wise and pound-foolish." After all the sacrifice and effort it took to get to this point, Washington should find a way—working with its allies and with the rich Persian Gulf countries—to sustain an Afghan army that is capable of protecting both Afghanistan's interests and our own in that remote but important country. If anyone associated with this administration understands this, one would think Ms. Flournoy does.

Mr. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. deputy secretary of defense from 2001-05. This article is adapted in part from AEI's public-policy blog.

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