Afghanistan’s ground realities

January 14, 2009

There’s been much talk about the need for a new U.S. strategic approach to Afghanistan, that would combine a regional diplomatic initiative covering Iran, Russia, China, India and Pakistan with plans to send in thousands more troops.

The most recent in this vein came in an article in the Washington Post this week. It says President-elect Barack Obama intends to sign off on Pentagon plans to send up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but the incoming administration does not anticipate that the Iraq-like “surge” of forces will significantly change the direction of the conflict. 

“Instead, Obama’s national security team expects that the new deployments, which will nearly double the current U.S. force of 32,000 (alongside an equal number of non-U.S. NATO troops), will help buy enough time for the new administration to reappraise the entire Afghanistan war effort and develop a comprehensive new strategy for what Obama has called the ‘central front on terror’,” it says. “We have no strategic plan. We never had one,” it quoted a  senior U.S. military commander as saying of the Bush years.

But laying aside strategy for now, what about the ground realities of sending more troops into Afghanistan? (The Washington Post says “the military is as concerned about the mission of additional troops as it is about the size of the force and is looking for Obama to resolve critical internal debates, including the relative merits of conducting conventional combat vs targeted guerrilla war.”)

Joshua Foust at Registan.net and  Herschel Smith at the Captain’s Journal both pick up on a McClatchy article  about how U.S. Marines are discovering that tactics that worked in Iraq are no use in Afghanistan.

“In Iraq, American forces could win over remote farmlands by swaying urban centers. In Afghanistan, there’s little connection between the farmlands and the mudhut villages that pass for towns,” the McClatchy report says. “In Iraq, armored vehicles could travel on both the roads and the desert. Here, the paved roads are mostly for outsiders – travelers, truckers and foreign troops; to reach the populace, American forces must find unmapped caravan routes that run through treacherous terrain, routes not designed for their modern military vehicles. In Iraq, a half-hour firefight was considered a long engagement; here, Marines have fought battles that have lasted as long as eight hours against an enemy whose attacking forces have grown from platoon-size to company-size.”

Joshua Foust, who argues that U.S. counter-insurgency (COIN) operations will work in Afghanistan only if the United States breaks up its large bases there and spreads out as much as possible into the villages, also pointed out to me the following article in Foreign Policy highlighting starkly how using this approach will lead to more casualties:

“The U.S. military, designed to inflict overwhelming and disproportionate losses on the enemy, tends to equate victory with very few body bags. So does the American public,” it says. “The new counterinsurgency doctrine upends this perceived immunity from casualties by demanding that manpower replace firepower. Soldiers in Afghanistan must get out among the people, building and staffing joint security stations with Afghan security forces. That is the only way to disconnect the enemy from the civilians. Persistent presence—living among the population in small groups, staying in villages overnight for months at a time—is dangerous, and it will mean more casualties, but it’s the only way to protect the population effectively. And it will make U.S. troops more secure in the long run.”

That’s the kind of detail that seems awfully far removed from the strategic thinking currently fashionable among some Washington think-tanks.  Can Obama pull it all together? And is he, along with European governments which might be pressed into sending more troops into Afghanistan, ready for more body bags?

And if that doesn’t make for enough grim reading, here’s a link to an article on TomDispatch arguing the United States had failed in its promises to bring reconstruction to Afghanistan.  Individual stories about the failure of reconstruction and development, writes Ann Jones, who was a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan, “are every bit as important as the debates about military strength and tactics and strategy in Afghanistan that dominate public discourse today. Those promises, made in our name, were once said to be why we fight; now — broken — they remind us that we’ve already lost.”

(Reuters photos by Bob Strong in Nuristan, Afghanistan)

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