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reflections

Dec 22, 2008 | 02:58 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The Afghanistan Surge

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Kabul on Saturday that the United States will send an additional 20,000 to 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in the first half of 2009. The plan is in line with President-elect Barack Obama's statements during the presidential campaign and therefore is likely to come about. The United States currently has about 31,000 troops in Afghanistan, while other NATO countries have about 17,000 troops. Thus, the deployment will roughly double U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The first issue is the military purpose of the buildup. Doubling the force will put a total of about 60,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — 77,000 troops including the NATO contribution. That should be enough to secure the urban areas, but it is still far short of the force that would be needed to seal the border with Pakistan. It is, indeed, difficult to imagine a force large enough to achieve that mission. The United States cannot win a defensive war in Afghanistan. In a defensive war, the assumption is that the enemy will run out of either troops or the willingness to lose soldiers before the United States does. That does not strike us as a reasonable scenario. Therefore, if this is a military move, we must assume that the purpose is to create an offensive opportunity. The targets are the remnants of al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden in northwestern Pakistan, and the intention is to keep al Qaeda's core from rebuilding its capability. Obama said during the campaign that he intended to target al Qaeda and bin Laden, but it is difficult to imagine how a conventional force of this size would be effective in a mission better left to special operations troops. And it is not clear how the capture of al Qaeda leaders would secure Afghanistan against the Taliban. The other option is to use the forces to strike at Taliban bases inside Pakistan in order to disrupt their lines of supply and communications. That would be effective, but it is hard to imagine a force of 60,000 both securing vulnerable urban areas in Afghanistan and conducting substantive offensive operations into Pakistan. Undoubtedly, Obama will be asking NATO to increase its manpower in Afghanistan. Some NATO members could halt withdrawals already scheduled or even send more troops (though U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock at NATO headquarters has acknowledged that Washington's NATO allies will not provide any major troop increases). But the size of the force needed to conduct sustained operations against the Taliban in Pakistan would be enormously larger than anything conceived or conceivable, and the willingness and ability of the Pakistanis to carry out the mission themselves simply isn't there. What is being proposed is a force that can shore up Afghanistan, but which is not sufficiently larger than the current force to seriously threaten the Taliban. We must always remember that the Soviets — with 130,000 troops, a border with Afghanistan and highly liberal rules of engagement — could not achieve a decisive military victory in almost 10 years. Sixty thousand troops dependent on a line of supply that stretches through Pakistan and back to the United States are unlikely to succeed. Mullen and Obama certainly know this. So does Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge in Iraq. It would seem to us that the plan is to re-create that surge. The key to Iraq was not that the 30,000 troops sent there made a qualitative difference militarily, but that they helped to create a psychological perception — demonstrating that the United States was not about to withdraw. That allowed talks to open between the United States and the Sunni insurgents previously vilified by the Americans, which set in motion the political process under way in Baghdad. The question is whether what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan. The political dynamics of Iraq left the Sunnis in fear of isolation, should the Americans reach an agreement with the Shia. The Taliban are not concerned about being isolated. They emerged as the victors in the civil war of the 1990s, and they are confident they can do so again. Furthermore, the sectarian divide that is inherent to Iraq isn't present in Afghanistan, where the insurgency is far less fragmented. The Taliban are also aware of the other pressures the United States is facing and are doubtful that Obama is inclined to allow the conflict in Afghanistan to continue interminably. Their view is that time is on their side. Now if Petraeus can split the Taliban, that would be another story. And that could be the intention behind this deployment. How it would work is unclear, but what is clear is that barring a dramatic change in Pakistani policy (which is not out of the question but is highly unlikely), splitting the Taliban and negotiating with some factions is the key. The success of that strategy is in the hands of the Taliban; Mullah Mohammed Omar reportedly has named seven conditions for ending the insurgency. The surge is intended to increase American control over the process. It is unclear why the United States thinks this will happen — it is not impossible, but it is unclear.

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