Sunday, August 01, 2010

Realities, rules, relationships won't help surge succeed

Debating the surge in Afghanistan, on The Hill. Here are my two cents.

When the Bush administration unveiled the Iraq surge and new war strategy, then Senator Barak Obama opposed the plan, arguing it was bound to fail and increase the violence. He was proven wrong. A few years later, President Obama, faced with a dismal situation in Afghanistan, is trying to copy the same approach, minus the right strategy and necessary catalysts. Although it may take many months before a reliable assessment of success or failure can be made, there is little reason to expect Obama’s plan to meet with the same success of the Iraq surge.

Let’s look at some of the enablers of success in Iraq and compare those with the situation in Afghanistan.

First, differences in the capability, resolve and reliability of local partners matter. In Iraq's case, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acted as a resolute, if sometimes reckless, partner. He did not shy away from cracking down on terrorists or confronting insurgents — Shiite or Sunni — head-on. The parallel rapid growth in the size and proficiency of Iraqi security forces — which some keen observers called “the real surge” — was also instrumental in turning the tide.

In Afghanistan, the situation is not even remotely similar. President Hamid Karzai not only has been reluctant to support military operations but went as far as threatening to join the Taliban. Moreover, U.S. forces cannot expect from Afghan forces the same level of active participation the Iraqis were able to contribute. Despite having a larger population, Afghanistan’s security forces are a third the size of Iraq’s. Tough terrain and more scattered population centers further complicate counterinsurgency operations by the smaller combined U.S.-Afghan force.

Second, different operational strategies and stricter rules of engagement represent another challenge to troops in Afghanistan. While both surge plans emphasized protecting the civilian population, the strategy in Iraq also emphasized taking the fight to the enemy. An important part of the strategy was sending troops out of large bases to fight their way into neighborhoods where they established combat outposts from which they could protect civilians and proactively tackle the enemy at the same time, which they did. Troops in Afghanistan do not have the same freedom of action. The rules in Iraq offered troops more flexibility in force employment, allowing them to take timely decisive action against the enemy. In Afghanistan it is common to hear troops complain how the new rules of engagement can allow enemy fighters to escape, and occasionally put the troops in danger. This was not the case in Iraq.

Third, the relationships between the population, terrorists and government were different in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Afghans, while not necessarily fond of the Taliban actions, do not seem to see huge differences between Taliban and government control. In fact sometimes they prefer the former as the Taliban can be better at governance and creating working relations with the population, largely because the government is so incompetent and corrupt.

In Iraq the situation was different. Terrorists alienated the population with their brutality, while the government and U.S. forces offered brighter and more viable alternatives. By the time the surge started, Awakening tribes were already chasing down al-Qaeda.

The Iraq surge had the right enablers, but also clear and suitable political and military goals—to protect the population, defeat the irreconcilable, and offer the reconcilable a chance to find political solutions. Obama sent the additional troops, and the generals wrote great counterinsurgency manuals, but a comprehensive strategy based on the needs and assets on the ground does not seem to exist yet.


Anand said...

Omar, the vast majority of Afghans oppose the Taliban. Including the 59% of Afghans who are not Pashtun and many Afghan Pashtuns. 41% of the ANA is Pashtun. Even among Pashtun Afghans, the large majority are rooting for the ANA to defeat the Taliban.

This said, the Taliban do have considerable popular support in Kandahar, Zabul, Nuristan, Kunar, Paktika and Ghazni. They also have pockets of Pashtun support in Logar and Wardak.

omar said...


In Iraq, AQI was defeated only when it lost support in Anbar and Baghdad's Sunni districts. AQI's extremely low popularity in Basra or Erbil was good, but irrelevant. 
We need to see the Afghan public's perception of Taliban change in those provinces you mentioned.

Brian Hall said...

There's also the fundamental difference in societies: Iraq was a historically civilized country that had fallen into bad hands. A-stan has never been even semi-civilized. 

Guest said...

In Afghanistan, the Taliban will continue to stir trouble for as long as Afghanistan is friendly with India.  Pakistan will continue to provide resources and refuge for the Taliban and will fight the Afghan government to the last Pashtun if required as long as Kabul is friends with India.

The Pakistanis are fighting a war much different from the one the Americans and NATO are fighting.

JohnG said...

Literacy is also a HUGE difference. It is very difficult for representative democracy to succeed with literacy as low as that of Afghanistan.

Anand said...

Brian, with all due respect, Afghanistan has been "civilized" for 5 thousand years. Afghanistan is the birth place of the Indus and Aryan/Vedic civilizations.

The "West" are descendents from the Aryans.

Brian Hall said...

OK, "never" was too long.  How 'bout the last 2000 years? Those ancient civilizations went and grew up elsewhere.  All A-stan has left is tribal loyalties and authority. 

Tribal survival mode is robust, but sharply limited and antithetical to modern society, science, and services.  The Taliban suit that just fine. Their opinion of ancient cultures was demonstrated when they shelled the Cliff Buddhas.

Kafir said...

But Brian, people said the same things about Iraq. That it was a tribal society that had little use for modernity and none for democracy. I am 1/8 Comanche indian. I have no idea where other Comanches hang out but I have read blog posts here mentioning the head of the tribe Omar and his brothers belong to. Yet both modernity and democracy have come to Iraq.

Never say never. A-stan is undoubtedly a much more difficult project, but it can be done, if we have the will. The alternative is finding the will to nuke the place. If we can't find the will to be there as long as we've been in Germany and Japan, we will never find the will to fire off nukes.

Hameed Abid said...


We, in Iraq are still reeling from ignorant people recently elected who are the products of the command economy. They are not able to understand the compromises necessary to form a government of national unity.

They need guidance and help. Leaving them to their own devices has proven usless. They do not understand the damage that they are inflicting on the ordinary citizens. They are in a blame game frames of mind at present. They are in denial.

The Obama adminstration must do something drastic to get them talking sensibly together and form a coalition governemnt soonest. Enough is enough. This procrastination and inaction must stop forthwith The Iraqi people, the electors, have had enough.

It is the responsibility of the Americans to secure the interests of the the Iraqi people who are being misled by their own backward and selfish leaders at present.

We do not want Iraq to be the victim of Ex. socialists dictators dressed as saviors but with the Emporor's cloths.

Please send in the heavyweight to lean on the iraqis to provide essential services to their people asap.

Kind regards

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