More U.S. troops for Afghanistan

February 20, 2009

President Barack Obama is sending 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to fight a growing insurgency, but will they make a difference?

America and its allies have far fewer boots on the ground in Afghanistan than Iraq, although the former is larger, more populous and features more challenging terrain.

As two former U.S. soldiers pointed out in Foreign Policy magazine, military strategists generally believe a successful counter-insurgency strategy requires 20-25 troops for every 1,000 civilians.

This “force ratio” was outlined by Rand Corp military analyst James Quinlivan in an influential study in the 1990s that has become one of the standard works on the subject.

Quinlivan’s paper drew on the British experience in Northern Ireland — as well as their 1950s anti-communist campaign in Malaya — and although the conflict is very different from Afghanistan a comparison of the size of forces is interesting.

At the height  of Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” in the early 1970s, the British Army had around 30,000 troops in the province of 1.6 million people.

There are currently around 68,000 western troops in Afghanistan, a country of 32 million people. Even including the proposed reinforcements and Afghan forces, the “force ratio” in Afghanistan is at best only around a third of what the British deployed in Northern Ireland.

Of course, a simple numbers comparison ignores the fact that Afghanistan’s terrain is much tougher, the fighting there is far more intense and that more than half of Northern Ireland’s population are Protestants who overwhelmingly support British rule.

And finally, despite the number of troops committed, the British Army did not defeat the IRA, struggling to bring security as the conflict dragged on for the three decades.

The role of the British military in Northern Ireland remains deeply controversial. A sympathetic assessment might bet that it “held the line”, preventing a descent into all-out civil war and doing enough to convince its foes that they, too, could not triumph by military means alone. That, in turn, persuaded local politicians there would have to be a negotiated settlement and, after a tortuous peace process, a deal was eventually struck.

Establishing the conditions for a political settlement including at least some of their enemies seems to be the goal of the United States and its allies have accepted is the best outcome on offer in Afghanistan. If so, they will hope it can be achieved faster that in Northern Ireland.

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