Two Fronts, Same Worries
KABUL -- For many Americans who are weary of Iraq, Afghanistan is the "good war" in which the United States and its European allies are destroying what's left of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That view certainly holds with the Democratic presidential candidates, who talk of adding troops in Afghanistan next year even as they pull troops out of Iraq.
But "bad" Iraq has more in common with "good" Afghanistan than people sometimes realize. Both have evolved into classic counterinsurgencies with a "clear and hold" strategy for providing security; both show the benefits of a military surge; both run the risk of failure because of weak and corrupt host governments.
Soon, the same U.S. commander -- Gen. David Petraeus -- will be overseeing both battlefields. If confirmed in the new post as head of Central Command, Petraeus will have to balance U.S. military needs in Iraq with those in Afghanistan. Given that Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency for the military, his oversight should be good for both theaters.
The military surge in Afghanistan has largely gone unnoticed, in part because the U.S. commitment here is so much smaller. The 40-nation coalition force has increased to about 62,000 from about 42,000 in 2006. The American contribution is by far the largest, with more than 30,000 troops, including a new boost of 3,200 Marines just dispatched to southern Afghanistan, the area of the toughest fighting. Last year, the United States spent $4.9 billion on training and equipment for the Afghan army, after spending $3.5 billion during the preceding five years combined, according to a U.S. official.
"Without question, additional U.S. troops would be helpful in 2009," says Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the commander of coalition forces here. In particular, he's looking for new troops to take over from the 3,200 newly arrived Marines when they go home in October.
The success of the Afghanistan surge is clear in the east, which has been the main area of U.S. responsibility. McNeill doubled U.S. troops and spending there last year and added some innovative counterinsurgency tactics using the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams. These PRTs are building roads and schools and carrying out other development projects to help the Afghan government hold areas once they have been cleared by U.S. troops.
McNeill, like Petraeus in Iraq, has worked to isolate the hard-core enemy from those who can be co-opted. He describes his adversary not as the Taliban (some of whom have joined the Afghan parliament) but as extremist warlords who give support to al-Qaeda.
To bolster the Afghan police, McNeill adopted a new strategy for the country's 40 most violent districts, known as Focused District Development. Each month, police are pulled from a half-dozen of these districts and replaced by an elite national force, while the local cops are retrained and the most corrupt and incompetent are purged.
Despite (or perhaps because of) McNeill's success in attacking insurgents' havens, they are turning to Iraq-style suicide bombings. The latest data show that combined military and civilian casualties are up 43 percent so far this year compared with 2007, with more than half of that total coming from suicide attacks and 72 percent in the volatile southern region.
This insecurity is compounded by the failings of the government of President Hamid Karzai. "What we see is a government that is weak and corrupt," says Yonus Qanooni, the speaker of the Afghan parliament. He's a leader of the opposition, so his comment isn't surprising, but he expresses a frustration with the Karzai government that's widely shared here.
William Wood, the U.S. ambassador, tries to put Afghanistan's two trends into perspective: "There is deterioration in terms of personal security. People are more frightened. It's the problems with the police; it's corruption; it's weak local governance." At the same time, he stresses, "national security is stronger. The insurgents won't unseat the government. They won't take over provincial capitals. They won't win."
Wood and McNeill are working with Karzai to tackle the political problems before they overwhelm the battlefield gains. The Afghans have created a new local governance directorate to weed out poor performers. Since last August, they've sacked eight of 34 provincial governors. The government says it is also trying to reduce opium production, a problem that keeps getting worse because of what analysts say is high-level corruption.
It's easier to be optimistic here than in Iraq, in part because the Afghan sense of nationhood is so much stronger. But what's striking is how many common themes one finds in these two conflicts -- and how many opportunities to apply lessons learned on one battlefield to the other.