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Is President Obama's Afghanistan strategy working?

Topic A
Sunday, May 9, 2010; A13

With Afghan President Hamid Karzai visiting Washington this week, The Post asked experts whether the surge in Afghanistan was working. Below are contributions from Erin M. Simpson, Gilles Dorronsoro, Kurt Volker, John Nagl, Thomas H. Johnson and Andrew J. Bacevich.

ERIN M. SIMPSON

Member of the Afghan International Security Assistance Force's Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team; spent the past several months in southern Afghanistan; the views expressed are her own

Any discussion of the effectiveness of the surge must begin with two observations. First, counterinsurgency is an exercise in competitive governance, meaning the troops "surged" to Afghanistan are only part of a very complex equation. Second, less than half the troops that President Obama authorized in December have arrived here. It's far too early to tell whether the so-called surge has "worked."

Most of the troops who have arrived are Marine battalions deployed to Helmand province, with many participating in coalition operations in Marja -- in many ways the hardest test-case of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's strategy. After tough fighting, we see initial, fragile signs of progress. Marja has shifted from being under 100 percent Taliban control, with no Afghan officials, to ever-increasing government presence. Twenty Afghan officials work there and are starting to bring basic services to long-neglected Afghans. Elsewhere in Helmand, Marines have moved into the "hold" and "build" phases of their campaign -- especially in Nawa and Garmsir, where many senior government and tribal officials have returned to work after violence drove them into "exile" in the provincial capital.

For the "surge" to succeed, coalition and Afghan officials will need to capitalize on this change in momentum in Helmand. This includes maintaining government effectiveness through the critical fall planting season, providing the assistance necessary to allow farmers to plant winter wheat instead of pernicious poppy. But the Taliban won't win by outfighting the coalition; it can win only by outgoverning the Afghans. The early phase of the surge is getting Afghans back into the governance game. This is where we must focus our attention.

GILLES DORRONSORO

Visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The surge in Afghanistan is not working. The only place where the counterinsurgency strategy has been tried so far is in Marja, where its results have been disastrous. The Taliban is still there, and the population neither supports the local government nor collaborates with U.S. forces. The Taliban has enough spies to kill people suspected of aiding the Americans, while the local Afghan government has no political capital.

The consequence is that at least a few thousand U.S. troops will stay in this marginal district to contain the Taliban when they are needed to resist the coming Taliban offensive in the north and east.

The imminent U.S. offensive in Kandahar will also fail, because the coalition cannot reform the local government. Ahmad Wali Karzai, half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, remains the local strongman, and the United States will not remove him, meaning it has no reliable partner to work with in Kandahar. Taliban forces have infiltrated that city in great numbers and are already targeting Afghans who work with the government or the Americans.

JOHN NAGL

President of the Center for a New American Security

The counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan that President Obama committed to twice over the course of 2009 is beginning to take hold. This strategy, like the one adopted in Iraq in 2007, is much more than an additional commitment of troops and civilian experts; it focuses on protecting the local population in order to provide a secure space within which political solutions to the underlying problems driving the insurgency can develop.

Counterinsurgency campaigns are not won by killing or capturing every insurgent and terrorist; while the most committed ideologues have to be killed or captured, many of the foot soldiers and even the mid-level leaders decide at some point that renouncing violence and becoming part of the political process offer a better chance for success than continuing to fight. The increased U.S. troop commitment in south and east Afghanistan, where the insurgency is strongest, along with more effective drone strikes and an increasing Pakistani government commitment to counterinsurgency, are putting more pressure on the Taliban and giving the Afghan government an opportunity to outgovern its enemies.

During his visit to Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will discuss with Obama how the political effort is faring -- and what the United States will be willing to accept from Taliban negotiators who are seeking reconciliation with the Afghan government. Whether Karzai is able to provide effective political solutions will be the ultimate test of Obama's counterinsurgency strategy.

KURT VOLKER

Ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009; managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; senior adviser at the Atlantic Council of the United States

The surge was always part of a bigger strategy to be implemented over time. This means we can't judge the surge by itself, and it's too early to judge the whole effort. As of today, here's the score sheet:

Reversing the Taliban's military momentum: on track. Fighting smarter, to engage the local population: making progress, thanks to Gen. Stanley McChrystal's counterinsurgency approach. Pressuring the Taliban inside Pakistan: surprisingly successful. Training more and better Afghan security forces, so they can lead: lagging. Strengthening civilian efforts, including governance, anti-corruption policies and the economy: real problems here, especially in the relationship with President Hamid Karzai. Hopefully his visit will get us all on the same page. Implementing a regional political and economic strategy to help make Afghanistan sustainable: still on the drawing board. Our biggest liability is that regional actors and NATO allies believe we will pull out beginning in July 2011. Thus the villains play for time, the good actors hedge their bets and the allies guard their wallets. Success in Afghanistan is a vital U.S. interest for a dozen different reasons. So we may as well be clear, for friend and foe alike: We are in for the long haul and will do whatever it takes.

THOMAS H. JOHNSON

Research professor and director of the Program of Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School

A peaceful, stable and secure Afghanistan will never be realized merely through the provision of more U.S. combat troops. In reality the "surge" has had no impact on reversing a series of serious past American and Afghan political and military policy failures. Our experience in Vietnam is worth remembering: The United States and its allies had more than 2.2 million security forces, including 535,000 Americans, and lost in an operational area smaller than Afghan's Regional Command South. Merely to have the same troops-per-square-mile density we had in Vietnam, we would need 8.8 million security troops in Afghanistan.

The notion that 30,000 more men will be decisive in the Afghan counterinsurgency environment does not stand up well to the light of military logic and Afghan history. It should also be remembered that according to the Pentagon's own calculations, the annual per capita cost of the soldiers and Marines participating in the surge is $1 million each. Simply maintaining the escalation forces is costing $30 billion annually. The staggering cost of maintaining the war, currently some $75 billion a year, calls into serious doubt the economic sustainability of the war, absent hefty tax increases -- which are probably politically impossible -- to pay for it.

ANDREW J. BACEVICH

Professor of history and international relations at Boston University; author of "Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War."

In making Afghanistan the centerpiece of its retooled war on terrorism, the Obama administration overlooked this fact: The global jihadist threat has no center. "Winning" in Afghanistan, however defined, will neither eliminate nor even reduce that threat. What's more, past Western military forays into the Islamic world served chiefly to exacerbate violent jihadism. This pattern persists today. For evidence, look no further than neighboring Pakistan.

This time things will be different, insist the proponents of counterinsurgency. Yet Americans need to look past all the happy talk about winning hearts and minds to see counterinsurgency for what it really is: coercive nation-building. It rests on this underlying premise: We know how you should live your life. It usurps any right to self-determination; it imposes norms. In this case, Western soldiers and civilian cadres are hell-bent on transforming a tribal culture imbued with a traditionalist form of Islam.

This effort cannot help but elicit sustained resistance, as indeed it has. From his cave, Osama bin Laden no doubt rejoices: The prospect of the United States bankrupting itself through perpetual war provides a great gift to the jihadists.

So is the Afghanistan surge working? You bet -- just not for us.

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