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Surge alone will not work

The surge in Afghanistan is likely to bring more strain on Pakistan, as militants would begin escaping across the border to recuperate, reorganise and network with like-minded groups


By Imtiaz Gul

The Friday Times May 8-14, 2009

The website iCasualties.org reports that 90 foreign soldiers have been killed so far this year, a 67 percent increase from the same period last year. The UN, the EU and NATO speak of an over 70 percent spike in violence. Coalition-insurgent clashes also leave about two dozen dead almost daily. The American Security Project attributes this rise in violence to the spread of the Taliban, which it says has a “persistent presence” in about 75 percent of Afghanistan.

This also forced the Obama administration, advised by CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus, to go for a “surge” that will raise the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the end of the year, bringing the total number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to more than 90,000. (The Soviet Union had around 120,000 troops at the peak of its campaign in Afghanistan.)

Other NATO members are committing more troops to the country, hoping to stem the violence. Australia (450) and Britain (700) are also pledging more troops to the existing 32,000 from 39 countries.

Of the US reinforcements, some 17,000 soldiers and marines will join the NATO force in Helmand, heartland of the Taliban, to bolster British, Canadian, Dutch and other NATO troops fighting a resurgent Taliban in the southern provinces.

US and NATO officials hope the coalition would be able to provide a “degree” of security to over 90 percent of the population in the south, up from the current 60 percent.
Financial Commitments : President Obama for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If approved, this would bring the running tab for both conflicts to about USD947 billion. More than three-quarters of the USD864 billion appropriated so far has gone to the war in Iraq, the Congressional Research Service estimates.

The US Army is building nearly USD4 billion worth of military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and is planning to start projects costing an additional USD1.3 billion this year. That is definitely indicative of US commitment to a long-term stay in Afghanistan.
While submitting the Pentagon’s 2010 budget to Congress, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates announced an extra USD2 billion for intelligence and surveillance equipment, including greater spending on special forces units and 50 new Predator and Reaper drones that are currently deployed in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Additionally, Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, is undergoing expansion to house more than 8,000 US Marines. Four new bases, as well as several airstrips, are being constructed across southern Afghanistan.

These moves and a string of statements from top officials underscore a reinforcement of the US-led commitment to fixing the situation in Afghanistan. Coalition partners believe that the surge – in the form of more troops and equipment, including drones, and fresh financial injections – will break the back of the insurgency and enable them to chalk out an exit strategy before international commitment wanes in the face of domestic criticism and scepticism of the engagement in Afghanistan.

Essentially, this military surge draws on General Petraeus’ experience in Iraq, where he managed to get many insurgent elements on the side of the coalition and also raised local councils as part of the nation-building. He unveiled his 14 ideas on the surge-cum-engagement with locals during the January 23, 2007 hearing. His “surge doctrine” included points such as “do not do too much with your own hands, money is ammunition, increasing the number of stakeholders is critical to success, success in a counterinsurgency requires more than just military operations, ultimate success depends on local leaders, there is no substitute for flexible and adaptable leaders, and, finally, a leader’s most important task is to set the right tone.”

Impact on Af-Pak: Before discussing the impact of the surge on Afghanistan-Pakistan, let us consider this excerpt from The Spectator (April 29, 2009) in which Eric Ellis writes: “…eight years after 9/11, the extremists are again emboldened across the sub-continent. Sensible Afghans – most of them – are appalled by the Islamists but just as disgusted by the corrupt spinelessness of the Western-sponsored government that replaced them. The peaceful, democratic future we promised Afghans after 9/11 hasn’t arrived, the power’s still disconnected.”

This sad comment illustrates the problem in present day Afghanistan. It also contains a prophecy on the immediate future of this embattled country. The American Security Project says the Taliban have a “persistent presence” in about 75 percent of Afghanistan. Ellis calls Kabul “the corrupt urban hellhole of ocean-going proportions”.
Viewed against this, Afghanistan seems to be caught in a three-way vicious cycle: a corrupt ruling elite eating up whatever little resources are available; a reticent and obscurantist religious movement shaking it to the core through its resistance to “foreign occupation forces”; and an ambitious international community – “foreign occupation forces” – keen on bending the situation according to its own whims, this time around with the help of a combination of military surge and more effective funding.
Two Bomb attacks in Zabul and Laghman provinces, with at least 25 casualties, on May 4, clearly underscored the Taliban response to the surge strategy. In late April, the Taliban website, Al Emerah, had promised a new offensive and a wave of suicide attacks and ambushes from April 30. This offensive has already claimed several dozen lives. This is why many are anticipating a surge in violence as well.


“There is going to be a fight this summer, and where there’s a fight, you take casualties. It’s going to be a bloody summer,” British Brigadier David Hook, deputy commander of the NATO-led force in the south of the country, told Reuters.

At the heart of the Taliban-led insurgency lies the presence of “foreign troops”, which acts as the raison d’etre for the militants and also fuels the anti-Western sentiment. If Afghan responses to articles on foreign troops’ involvement in Afghanistan were an indicator (mostly on the internet), most Afghans want the foreigners out. When they will leave is the most frequently asked question, probably flowing from the typical Afghan aversion to foreign influence.

It is therefore questionable whether Gen Petraeus can replicate the Iraqi experience in Afghanistan; there, the US managed to marginalise Iranian and Syrian influence and create stakeholders within the ruling elite. In Afghanistan, within a tribal and sub-tribal society and across a very difficult terrain, US-led coalition forces have yet to find stakeholders that can sustain the surge followed by a phased withdrawal of foreign troops (if at all).

Also, the ownership of the anti-Taliban fight is still missing in Afghanistan, with most of the Karzai cabinet viewed as US-UK poodles, and that makes success even more difficult. With ex-ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad entering the electoral fray, suspicions on the predominance of the US role in Afghanistan are becoming even stronger.

Peace is will be hard to come by through the surge. There is also no likelihood of various competing interests pulling back in favour of peace. Pakistan, India, Iran, Russia and the United States are all involved in this theatre that now includes Pakistan.
The surge in Afghanistan is also likely to bring more strain on Pakistan, as militants would begin escaping across the border to recuperate, reorganise and network with like-minded groups. That means continued squabbling between Pakistan and its foreign friends led by Washington.

Unless the war effort in Afghanistan is “de-Americanised” and local ownership created, unless the Afghan governance and security capacity is improved and until the removal of people considered US lackeys takes place, no financial and military surge will be able to rescue Afghanistan from its current spate of violence.

(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad.

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk