It’s been announced that President-Elect Obama, at the suggestion of commanders in the field, will be sending up to 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan in 2009, turning that conflict into what some commentators are calling “Obama’s War.” Not so coincidentally, this is the exact number of additional soldiers sent to Iraq. And also not coincidentally, as discussed on this site, the U.S. is drafting a plan to arm the local militias in Afghanistan in order to turn them into a parallel security force, as well as to dramatically expand the Afghan National Army, the other two major elements of the “surge.” This means that, thankfully, President-Elect Obama must privately recognize the success of the surge in Iraq and is open to adapting the strategy for use in Afghanistan.
So, prepare for a Round Two in Afghanistan. Although we face essentially the same enemy as in 2001-2002, some of the dynamics have changed, as described in this excellent article. It is probably the best summary I’ve come across in recent months.
Perhaps the most important element to understand here is the unreliability of our NATO allies in Afghanistan. The author of the article, Tom Ordeman Jr., writes that German special forces were not sent on a single mission in three years; the 3600 German soldiers in Afghanistan are more likely to be overweight than the average German citizen; and that the German forces in Afghanistan, unlike U.S. and U.K. forces, are allowed to consume alcohol. And consume alcohol they do–over one million liters of it per year.
Germany, although receiving the brunt of the blame after public revelations about their failure to attack Taliban figures, isn’t alone. Italy has not increased their patrols, Australian soldiers are complaining about heavy restrictions on their activity; and there’s intense political pressure in France, Japan and Canada for soldiers to be withdrawn from the field. The majority of the fighting, Ordeman says, is done by U.S., British, Danish, and Dutch soldiers, with good contributions from the Canadians, Australians (and in my opinion, the French) despite their faults.
Ordeman also supports President-Elect Obama’s earlier comment (albeit very poorly stated) that the lack of manpower has led to an overreliance on air power, causing civilian casualties that result in anti-American sentiment. Like Iraq, the U.S. needs to send soldiers into the population centers so they become part of local society. The author correctly points out that Afghans do not want the Taliban to come back, just like Iraqis did not want Iranian domination, theocratic leadership or Baathist dictatorship, but a counter-insurgency strategy is required to utilize this opinion into an effective force to defeat the enemy.
The opium fields of Afghanistan, which fund the Taliban as well as threaten Western societies, are another problem. Some commentators have favored the wholesale destruction of the fields by U.S. forces, but this would do tremendous damage to the Afghan economy and cause a public backlash in Afghanistan that could very well be fatal to our efforts there. Luckily, opium cultivation decreased in 2008 due to Afghan farmers tapping into the pomegranates, which they are now exporting to France and high food prices have resulted in farmers focusing on growing wheat.
The U.S. effort, in my opinion, also needs to focus more on local governance. It’s a common phrase that “all politics are local,” and in a counter-insurgency environment, that cannot be over-stated. It was this focus on local populations and power-holders that helped turn around the situation in Iraq, and while in the short-term it can decrease the strength of the central government over the rest of the government, Afghanistan has been a decentralized country for a long time and to focus solely on strengthening the central government would be an attempt of social engineering we cannot afford and is unlikely to succeed. Ironically, as Afghanistan’s local areas grow stronger, that’s likely to increase the links to the central government anyway, as instability is the strongest force causing this division in governance.