Of Afghanistan and backpacks

February 4, 2009

According to George Friedman from the Stratfor intelligence group the United States should forget the idea of sending more troops to Afghanistan and concentrate instead on covert operations against al Qaeda and the Taliban.

As has become increasingly clear, the administration of President Barack Obama faces a hard time raising its troop presence in Afghanistan without either relying on precarious supply lines through Pakistan or making political compromises with Russia to win its support for using alternative routes through Central Asia.

“So how can Mr. Obama reconcile the two goals of strengthening the American presence in Afghanistan while curbing Russian expansionism?” asks Friedman. “The answer is to rely less on troops, and more on covert operations like the CIA. Covert operators are far more useful for the actual war that we are fighting (and they can carry their supplies on their backs). The primary American interest in Afghanistan, after all, is preventing terrorist groups from using it as a base for training and planning major attacks. Increasing the number of conventional troops will not help with this mission.”

His article struck me not so much for the suggestion about the need for covert operations. One wonders whether Friedman has ever lived in a small-town environment where you can barely open a curtain without being noticed let alone carry a backpack with satellite phone and whatever other equipment you might need to hunt down equally sophisticated militant groups who will have made a point of recruiting intelligence from the local population.

What is interesting is his assertion that sending more troops is not the answer.

There are a few articles out there suggesting that Afghanistan could be Obama’s Vietnam, including from U.S. analysts Juan Cole and Norman Solomon.  But such suggestions are usually dismissed as the talk of the American left, and most of the discussion in Washington seems to be more about the fine details of exactly how the United States should refine its strategy in Afghanistan to focus on limited, achievable goals rather than a grander vision of a tolerant pluralistic democracy — while nonetheless accepting the need for more troops

So are those who are fretting about how the United States should recalibrate strategy in Afghanistan missing the point? Is Friedman right to say that sending more troops is not the answer? And if so, what is the alternative?

(Reuters photo of Nuristan in Afghanistan/Bob Strong)

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