Achieving Victory in Afghanistan
In anticipation of Sen. Barack Obama’s visit to Afghanistan I thought it might be appropriate to consider the situation there. Both Sens. McCain and Obama have called for achieving victory in Afghanistan. Sen. Obama has characterized the conflict there as “the war we need to win” and has called for
…taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Sen. McCain recently called for an Iraq-like “surge” in Afghanistan:
It is by applying the tried and true principles of counter-insurgency used in the surge — which Senator Obama opposed — that we will win in Afghanistan. With the right strategy and the right forces, we can succeed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. I know how to win wars. And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory.
But victory in Afghanistan, however defined, is far from a sure thing. Juan Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history and America’s preeminent expert on Shi’ism, recently expressed pretty serious skepticism:
If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don’t think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq.
ISAF Commander Dan McNeill in Der Spiegel estimated the requirements for pacifying Afghanistan:
ISAF Commander McNeill has said himself that according to the current counterterrorism doctrine, it would take 400,000 troops to pacify Afghanistan in the long term. But the reality is that he has only 47,000 soldiers under his command, together with another 18,000 troops fighting at their sides as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and possibly another 75,000 reasonably well-trained soldiers in the Afghan army by the end of the year. All told, there is still a shortfall of 260,000 men.
A year and a half ago, Col. Pat Lang, formerly an intelligence and special forces officer and the first professor of Arabic at the U. S. Military Academy, expressed optimism with respect to Afghanistan at a Middle East Policy Council forum:
In fact, if you had more troops and more people who were skilled at doing the kind of work that I’m familiar with and the right kind of diplomats and more foreign assistance and things of that kind, I think you could really still make something of Afghanistan. And it probably wouldn’t take a whole lot more in the way of troops.
Since then the following was written by a guest blogger at Col. Lang’s blog:
The US is in a bind. It has to deny the Pakhtun insurgency (the Taliban are only one part of it) the use of the tribal areas as a base. With Pakistan showing no will to control these areas, it is threatening to take unilateral military action there. This will obviously be through air strikes and Special Forces raids, both notorious for their inevitable “collateral damage”. This will add fuel to the fire of militancy, pushing more recruits into the ranks of the jihad, especially the deadly suicide bombers. An insurgency cannot be defeated by a few successful decapitation strikes, or even by turning a rugged mountainous base area into a free-fire zone. The more perceptive US commanders probably know this, but they have to be seen to do something about the continuous guerrilla attacks. How long will the NATO allies stick around fighting an unwinnable war? How long will the US public put up with it?
But that is not the worst of it. Believing Pakistan to be complicit in the US strikes on their people, the tribal militants will turn on it; they have already seen the deadly effect of their suicide bombs in the teeming cities. An already fragile governmental and societal structure will face severe stress; anything could happen. One thing is certain : the religious fundamentalists in the country will take full advantage of this turmoil. For the US, the first impact will be on their supply line through Pakistan. Then, Pakistan itself, as an ally, will be at risk.
One of the most difficult things for both statesman and soldier is to recognize a war as unwinnable before it is proven in the field.
Some Afghans have expressed substantial skepticism about the value of increased foreign troop strength in the country:
Kabul, July 20 (DPA) Ahead of Senator Barack Obama’s expected visit to Afghanistan, the US presidential hopeful’s plans to increase US troops in the country was being met with both hope and scepticism from Afghans.
“Increasing troops doesn’t help Afghanistan at all,” warned Kabeer Ranjbar, a member of the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly. “Afghanistan’s governmental institutions need to be reformed. The problem is the Afghanistan government itself.”
“Afghanistan government needs to gain people’s support,” he said. “If the government doesn’t have people’s support, increasing of forces doesn’t help Afghanistan.”
I’ve long been a skeptic about our efforts in Afghanistan. The logistics of supplying a larger force than we have there now is truly daunting, complicated by the reality that everything we bring into the country must be brought by air or overland through Pakistan. That increases the cost of operations there.
The operations are quite dangerous, too. Our casualty rate per 1,000 troops has been higher in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq for some time.
Since our invasion in 2001 we have successfully overthrown the Taliban and introduced a new government in the country. Unfortunately, that government doesn’t have a great deal of influence outside the capital city. We have been partially successful at expelling Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the country but are unable to completely secure the country as long as Al Qaeda and the Taliban remnants are able to flee across the border into Pakistan. The Pakistani government has either been unable or unwilling to prevent this and, understandably, is reluctant to allow our forces free rein in their country.
There are a number of questions we might consider. What would victory in Afghanistan look like? Given present constraints how can it be achieved? What will the cost of achieving it be? How long will it take? Are the costs and timeframe politically acceptable?