KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S. policy in Afghanistan is clearly at a crossroads. The war is getting more deadly. The Taliban are moving into new areas outside their traditional strongholds in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Militant groups are trying to overrun American outposts. This summer’s presidential election was marred by widespread allegations of fraud.
Comparisons are being made to Vietnam, and some American generals and policy makers are looking to Iraq for solutions.
The top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recommends a troop surge similar to the one in Iraq two years ago. It worked in Iraq, the thinking goes. The military hopes it will work again.
But will it? A comparison of the two countries suggests a surge in Afghanistan may give U.S. forces here, stretched thin already, some badly needed short term relief, but may not be enough to turn the tide of the war.
The common perception is that a troop increase of about 30,000 U.S. forces allowed Gen. David Petraeus – then Iraq’s commanding general, now the American commander who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – to implement a successful new strategy. The extra troops gave Petraeus the manpower necessary to his shift focus away from hunting down insurgents (killing “bad guys” as the military likes to say) to protecting the Iraqi people.
The theory was that once the people were protected, they’d enjoy stability and work to root out militants from their own communities. Give the people a taste of life without war and they will work to keep it. Help them to help you.
But Iraq is very different from Afghanistan. Iraq was in the midst of a civil war when the surge began two years ago. There is no civil war now in Afghanistan.
By 2007, Iraqi society had completely collapsed. Kidnappers operated freely in Baghdad. Sunnis and Shiites were blowing up each other’s markets, killing dozens of civilians every day. Sunni and Shiite militia leaders were setting up checkpoints on the streets and openly executing their rivals. There was street to street fighting. Children were being murdered based on their religion. Neighborhoods were being ethnically cleansed.
Sunni Arabs, the minority, were losing the civil war. The Shiite-led government seemed happy to see the Sunnis on the defensive, revenge for centuries of Shiite repression at the hands of Sunnis. When Petraeus arrived in Baghdad, he found that the fabric of Iraqi society had not only been torn, it was on fire.
Connecting to communities
Petraeus decided that to bring calm he needed to connect with Sunni Arab communities (the ones harboring al-Qaida, the worst instigators of sectarian violence) and convince them to fight with the Americans. It was very Lawrence of Arabia.
T.E. Lawrence inspired Arab tribesmen during World War I to fight with the British against the Ottomans with promises of independence and monarchies of their own. They liked it, took the deal, defeated the Ottomans and established kingdoms across the Middle East.
In Iraq, nearly a century after Lawrence, Petraeus offered Iraqi Sunni tribesman something more immediate. He couldn’t offer kingdoms or independence, but instead could provide money and protection. They needed both. In 2007, Sunni Arabs were being squeezed by Iran, murdered by Iraqi Shiite militias and forced out of power by al-Qaida militants ( who proved to be worse guests than they’d expected). In fact it was the Sunnis rather than the Americans who reached out first.
Petraeus responded with a bold move. In addition to bringing in 30,000 American reinforcements, he created a U.S.-backed militia of a 100,000 Sunni Arab tribesmen, the so-called Awakening Movement. It was a matrimony made in military heaven. Sunni tribes would fight al-Qaida with their new force. In exchange, the U.S. military would pay them and make sure Sunnis were not overrun by Iran or Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
Many have argued that Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribal force made the key difference in turning the tide of the war in Iraq. The American reinforcements and 100,000 Awakening Movement fighters doubled the size of the combat force in Iraq.
In Afghanistan few common goals
The situation in Afghanistan, however, is completely different. There is no unified group asking for protection. There is no Afghan Awakening Movement. McChrystal, Petraeus’ man on the ground in Kabul, wants Afghans to take up arms with him against the Taliban and other militants, but many Afghans see no reason why they should. Afghans aren’t asking for American protection.
The Taliban and other militant groups are unpopular in Afghanistan, with opinion polls suggesting that the Taliban has support only among six percent of Afghans. But most people here don’t feel threatened by the Taliban in their daily lives. There are no bodies in the streets of Kabul. The Taliban mostly attacks international and Afghan security forces. They rarely carry out attacks in markets. If they kill civilians, they deny it. They are actively trying to win hearts and minds.
It makes a difference on the ground. In Baghdad and Iraqi villages I constantly saw Iraqis walk up – or even run up – to American soldiers and plead with them for help.
“I received a death threat under my door.”
“My cousin was kidnapped.”
“My brother was just killed.”
“I want a visa to so I can work with my uncle in New Jersey.”
U.S. soldiers were mobbed with these kinds of requests.
This hardly ever happens in Afghanistan. Most American patrols are met with blank stares and silence. Most Afghans don’t have cousins in New Jersey. They don’t want to be like Americans.
Afghans want to be left alone. Iraqis love Lionel Richie and Oprah Winfrey. Most Afghans have no idea who they are. Afghans have a traditional society isolated for centuries by xenophobia, strict religion and the high peaks of the Hindu Kush.
The different dynamic raises the question: How do you protect Afghan people – the core of the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy – if they don’t seem to want it as much as we want to give it to them?
Different troop numbers
There were roughly 100,000 American troops in Iraq at the start of the surge. The influx brought the total foreign force to around 130,000-140,000 American troops, depending on troop rotations. There are now about 100,000 international troops in Afghanistan, which could swell to roughly 130,000 -140,000 if McChrystal gets the increase he wants.
On the surface the numbers look similar. They are not.
Out of the 100,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 35 percent of them are NATO contributions. Many of the NATO countries are simply not committed to combat operations. NATO has proven to be unwieldy and ineffective in Afghanistan. It’s a dirty little secret of this war. American commanders don’t say it in public – because it’s better to have NATO allies than not to have them – but there’s great dissatisfaction with NATO’s performance.
It means that U.S. commanders here, if the surge happens, would only be left with 100,000 or so reliable combat troops — Canadian and British forces have been fighting hard — but it’s still tens of thousands fewer than in Iraq.
Building the army
Which leads to another issue: one of the main points of any surge is to create stability so that local armed forces can be trained and equipped.
In Iraq, the United States made the controversial (some have said profoundly misguided) decision to disband the Iraqi army and create a new one. It was difficult, but in the end it was accomplished. Actually, it wasn’t that hard. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a military dictatorship. Iraqis practically marched and saluted in their sleep. It was a militarized society. Iraq is, and has long been, covered in military bases.
But in Afghanistan, there really was no army to disband. The army was destroyed by decades of war and neglect. Here the United States is starting from scratch, and working with a much less educated population.
Afghans can fight. They’ve proven that for centuries. Afghans are among the toughest, hardiest, bravest fighters in the world. But nine of out ten Afghan soldiers can’t read or write. Building a centralized army here will take a long time and cost billions of dollars.
So why have a surge?
The U.S. military in Afghanistan says it needs to both change the long term approach to fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan and to stop the Taliban’s momentum. Momentum, like luck, is intangible – but matters. The Taliban has momentum now.
The surge may help stop the Taliban’s expansion, but it seems unlikely to create a ground swell movement that could, as it did in Iraq, quickly turn the tide of the war. The surge might help bloody the Taliban’s nose, but don’t expect it to be an Iraq-style quick fix.
See Richard Engel’s documentary about the war in Afghanistan, “The Tip of the Spear” on MSNBC this Sunday, Oct.11.