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Rethink the Afghanistan surge

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

By Eric T. Olson / March 17, 2009


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

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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.