Will more foreign troops bring peace to Afghanistan?

July 25, 2008

APCs of German ISAF in Afghanistan/Fabrizio BenschWith both U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain calling for more troops to be sent to Afghanistan, there have been a slew of articles arguing this will at best not work and, at worst, fuel the insurgency.

The Financial Times quotes Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security adviser and prominent supporter of Barack Obama, as saying the United States risks repeating the defeat suffered by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. “It is important for U.S. policy in general and for Obama more specifically to recognise that simply putting more troops into Afghanistan is not the entire solution,” he is quoted as saying.

“We are running the risk of repeating the mistake the Soviet Union made . . . Our strategy is getting in deeper and deeper.”

That theme is echoed in Canada’s Globe and Mail, whose correspondent in Moscow talked to veterans of the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1889, which helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  ”We knew by 1985 that we could not win,” it quotes veteran Ruslan Aushev as saying.  It then took Moscow four more years to extricate hundreds of thousands of troops.

File photo of old Russian tank near KabulIn the Gulf News, Patrick Seale says that trying to force through a military solution on Afghanistan would be a grave mistake which would only radicalise the Muslim world further, while Juan Cole writes in salon.com that Obama could be jumping from the frying pan into the fire by shifting the focus away from Iraq to Afghanistan.

Are these the voices of reason that might temper the new U.S. zeal for taming Afghanistan — hoping to succeed where both the British and the Russians before them failed? Or will they be dismissed as pessimists?

For those with the patience for long-term solutions, here is a detailed piece from the Belfer Center which argues that the solution lies in restoring the autonomy and authority of the Pashtun tribes in both southern Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. “Rather than seeking to extend the reach of the central government, which simply foments insurgency,” it says, ”the United States and the international community should be doing everything in their means to empower the tribal elders and restore balance to a tribal/cultural system that has been disintegrating since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.”

At the other end of the scale is a suggestion by U.S. counterinsurgency expert John Nagl that Afghanistan institute a draft to call up Afghans to fight the insurgency. ”It was good enough for the United States up until 1973,” said Nagl, an author and former U.S. Army battalion commander now at the Center for a New American Security think tank, according to this Reuters story. “How can it not be good enough for the fifth poorest country in the world which is afflicted by a difficult insurgency?”

No shortage of ideas out there then. But how many can be accommodated with the timespan of a U.S. presidential term, or indeed rushed through by the current U.S. administration, anxious to show a foreign policy success before President George W. Bush leaves office in January?

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