What a Surge Can't Solve in Afghanistan

An Afghan police officer examines the aftermath of a bombing on the outskirts of Kabul on Wednesday. Three bodyguards of an Afghan general were killed in the attack.
An Afghan police officer examines the aftermath of a bombing on the outskirts of Kabul on Wednesday. Three bodyguards of an Afghan general were killed in the attack. (By Rafiq Maqbool -- Associated Press)
By David Ignatius
Sunday, September 28, 2008

If there was one foreign policy issue on which Barack Obama and John McCain agreed during Friday night's debate, it was that the United States should send more troops to Afghanistan. The bipartisan enthusiasm for this surge is so strong that there has been relatively little discussion of whether this strategy makes sense.

So here's a skeptical look at the issue, drawn from conversations during a visit to Afghanistan this month with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Rather than more troops, the real game-changer in Afghanistan may be Gates's plan to spend an extra $1.3 billion on surveillance technology to find and destroy the leadership of the insurgency.

The case for more troops was made forcefully by the new U.S. commander, Gen. David McKiernan. He said in a briefing in Kabul that to cope with rising violence, he needs three more combat brigades, in addition to the extra brigade already promised for early next year. That could add at least 15,000 troops to the current force of about 35,000. Other senior officers made similar pitches in briefings at Bagram and Jalalabad.

But the commanders' description of the enemy that these troops will be fighting was fuzzy. The adversary isn't al-Qaeda; it's not even the Taliban. It's what McKiernan called a "nexus of insurgency" and what other officers described as a "syndicate" of insurgents and criminal groups. It's not clear that this nexus, or syndicate, or whatever you want to call it, poses a mortal threat to the United States -- or even, necessarily, to the government of Afghanistan.

The "insurgent syndicate" was detailed in a PowerPoint briefing by Brig. Gen. James McConville, the deputy commander for the area in eastern Afghanistan where U.S. troops are fighting. One of his slides showed a circle of nine interconnected groups -- including the forces of Islamic warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the "Haqqani Network" of tribal leader Jalaluddin Haqqani, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and other Mafia-like groups. Al-Qaeda is part of the syndicate, in theory. But from what I've heard from U.S. commanders during three visits to Afghanistan this year, al-Qaeda's presence remains minimal.

The syndicate members can be deadly, to be sure. The Haqqani network, for example, is believed to be responsible for this year's Kabul bombings at the Serena Hotel in January, at the Victory Day parade in April and at the Indian Embassy in July. U.S. officials view the Haqqani group as "terrorists for hire," and they believe the organization has links with Pakistani intelligence. But targeted Special Forces attacks on this group's leadership are likely to have more impact than a general increase in U.S. troops.

The need for precise targeting is why Gates is stressing what's known as ISR -- short for "intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance." He has been pushing for more than a year (against foot-dragging by the Air Force) for a big increase in the use of drones and cheap manned aircraft to watch the roads and mountain passes of this huge country and spot the insurgents before they strike. This ISR surge has more than doubled the number of daily Predator patrols in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past year, from 12 in June 2007 to 28 today, and that number should reach 55 by the end of 2009.

By using ISR sensors, U.S. forces can see what's coming at them across Afghanistan's porous borders. And with new surveillance tools, they may be able to identify the networks and individuals that pose the biggest threat -- and then call in Special Forces teams to capture or kill insurgent leaders. "You don't hit a whole town, you hit the two people you want," says Lt. Gen. Richard Zahner, who heads a new ISR task force.

Afghanistan is a slow and difficult exercise in nation-building. The cornerstone of this effort is creating a strong Afghan army, whose numbers will double from 66,000 to 134,000 over the next three years. This effort requires 2,300 more American trainers, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, and that's certainly a good investment. And there are other specific areas where additional American forces can make a difference.

As Gen. McKiernan says, "It's not just boots on the ground" that will bring success in Afghanistan, but a range of factors such as governance, economic development and relations with neighboring Pakistan. The idea that we can saturate that vast country with enough American soldiers to provide security for the population seems unrealistic, to put it mildly.

The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company