Opinion

Rethink the Afghanistan surge

A US general explains why the Iraq model doesn't apply.

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With great expectations on their shoulders, the first US troops of a 17,000-strong surge are headed to Afghanistan.

But to do what?

Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has admitted that these soldiers are being sent without a clear strategy. Several missions have been proposed to turn back a Taliban resurgence. How will 17,000 more troops accomplish any one of them – let alone all?

The beefed-up effort has been fueled by the belief that the successful surge in Iraq can be replicated in Afghanistan.

It can't.

I speak from experience: For a year, I was the operational commander for all coalition forces in Afghanistan. Later, I was the deputy director of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office. The conditions that favored success in Iraq are conspicuously lacking in Afghanistan.

That doesn't mean success there will be impossible – just very difficult. It will require a custom strategy that takes account of hard, local realities.

Some US military officials have warned that what worked in Iraq probably won't work in Afghanistan. Yet Washington's strategy still seems based more on hope than judgment.

A closer look at the Iraq surge may provide some needed perspective.

The surge involved 30,000 more troops but its main ingredient was a new operational approach. Instead of "commuting to the war" from bases, soldiers were asked to "live with the people." Their job? Protect Baghdadis from raging violence. Smaller security stations helped soldiers be both more responsive and effective in urban operations and instill confidence in locals. Barriers and checkpoints limited the movement of militants and terrorists. And some nonviolent "soft cleansing" was permitted, transforming some of Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods into single-sect ones, further reducing violence.

But securing the Afghan population is a much more daunting challenge.

Iraq is like New York State: both feature mostly urban populations with dominant capitals. Pacify the Big Apple and you pacify the whole state; pacify Baghdad and you pacify Iraq. But Afghanistan is more like Alaska: both have rural populations with capital cities far removed from large, mountainous regions. Baghdad alone accounts for 7 million Iraqis – about one-quarter of the population. In Afghanistan, barely one-tenth of the population lives in the five largest cities. Because Baghdad is the political and socioeconomic center of the nation, the calming effect of the surge there reverberated across the country. But there is no such city in Afghanistan.

"Living with the people" in Afghanistan will require a completely different configuration. It would require small numbers of US soldiers living in countless small villages, where they'd be unable to support each other in emergencies. And since only about 20 percent of Afghanistan's roads are paved, quick-reaction forces would slow to a crawl, especially in the mountains and in bad weather.

If protecting the population is what's needed to reverse recent Taliban successes, then the best way to do so is through local, small-scale policing where the Taliban has been most successful: in small towns and villages. But the brigades at the heart of the coming surge are insufficient in number and they're not organized, trained, or equipped to do this kind of policing. The mission of the surge force needs to be rethought, with a primary focus on achieving the ability to build effective local security forces.

As difficult as the security surge will be, the key test in Afghanistan – as it was in Iraq – will be whether political, social, and economic progress is made.

In Iraq, the military surge was accompanied by a political surge, with two key objectives: (1) governmental reform at the national level, and (2) increased capacity in provincial and local governments.

To reach the first objective, US commitments to Iraq were tied to measurable progress. Thus were born the so-called benchmarks, which helped prod Iraq's government to achieve important milestones in political, economic, and social conditions. To date, no similar set of benchmarks has been set for the Afghan government, led by President Hamid Karzai. By handing Mr. Karzai a blank check so far, Washington has undermined the incentives for the central government to make badly needed reforms and win the support of Afghans.

To reach the second objective, the US ramped up the work of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). These small, interagency units strengthened local governments while nurturing political and economic institutions at the grass roots. PRT experts proved quite effective at their work, spurring national reform along the way. So far, the plan for Afghanistan does not include a similar PRT surge. To make matters worse, PRTs there are thinly staffed and resourced. Vital expertise is lacking.

It is doubtful that a military surge, even if accompanied by a strong political surge, can be successful without dealing directly with the growing unrest in the Pashtun territories that straddle the border with Pakistan. US authorities have trouble policing the border with Mexico – how can they expect to keep tabs on the Afghan-Pakistani border, which is roughly as long? The challenges in this region are vexing to both nations. Current proposals include sweeping military campaigns, broad international compacts, programs of economic development and aid granted to the governments of both nations, and grand bargains of all types struck between various parties. All these have been tried before. None have worked.

What has not been tried (because it has been judged too painstaking) is a systematic effort to address problems in the Pashtun areas on a village-by-village, tribe-by-tribe basis. The tools of such an approach are readily available. They include precisely planned and executed military operations to attack extremist networks without killing innocent civilians, microloans, and microgrants that go directly to meet the needs of local markets and small enterprises (which could avoid the corruption that besets the national governments), and reconciliation agreements that target the interests of small groups and recognize the pitfalls associated with applying broad labels ("Taliban," "militant," "drug cartel," and the like). President Obama took a step in the right direction this month when he suggested that he would support dialogue with Taliban moderates.

Critical to the success of such an approach will be careful and meaningful cooperation between the Afghan and Pakistani governments and the leadership of the US and NATO headquarters. Washington should also court greater international support from stakeholders who have yet to contribute.

For the secretary of Defense to publicly acknowledge that forces are deploying without a clear plan should indicate the difficulties ahead. But the words of another key military leader are worth recalling. At the time of the surge in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus observed that "hard is not hopeless." "Hard" can become more "hopeful" with a greater – and smarter – effort in Afghanistan, too.

Eric T. (Rick) Olson was the operational commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan in 2004-05. He's now working as a senior mentor for Army brigades.

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