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Why 'Surge Light' won't work

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Between World War I and World War II, Britain fought all across the Islamic world, battling insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, to name just two, and usually losing. This caused a fair amount of worry, introspection, angst and the usual commissions to determine why history was being so unkind. What the British discovered was what Pogo could have told them: They had met the enemy and it was them.

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Nowhere is Britain's interwar predicament better stated than in David Fromkin's brilliant and invaluable book about the creation of the modern Middle East, "A Peace to End All Peace." He writes, "What Britain faced in the Middle East was a long and perhaps endless series of individual and often spontaneous local rebellions against her authority. The rebellions were not directed by foreigners (as Britain usually suspected); they were directed against foreigners" -- in other words, Britain herself.

The lesson that Britain learned the hard way now has to be learned all over again. The trick for the United States in Afghanistan is to eradicate al-Qaeda and suppress the Taliban -- and do both in such a way that it does not go from self-proclaimed liberator to perceived oppressor. Can this be done?

Once again, Fromkin has something to say: "Perhaps if the British Empire had maintained its million-man army of occupation in the Middle East, the region's inhabitants might have resigned themselves to the inevitability of British rule . . . but once Britain had demobilized her army, the string of revolts in the Middle East became predictable." In other words, what we now call a surge might have done the trick, but Britain was out of men, out of money and out of sorts. It wanted to make war no more.

Somewhat the same thing applies today to the United States. Support for the war in Afghanistan is ebbing; it is opposed by the left and increasingly by the center, and what it would really take to achieve victory -- smash the Taliban -- are troop levels that now seem out of the question. If leaks from the White House mean anything, President Obama will opt for a mini-surge, doomed to be called Surge Light, which would mean an additional 10,000 to 20,000 troops and not the 40,000 or more that Gen. Stanley McChrystal would like.

Trouble is, the middling amount is also the muddling amount. It is neither here nor there -- not enough to win but more than enough to run the risk of provoking the ire of the locals. It is a strategy designed to do nothing much but look like a strategy designed to do a great deal. It fools no one and will lead to either an escalation or a huge reduction in forces. It would be best to get to the latter option as soon as possible. After all, lives are at stake.

The president of Afghanistan is corrupt. He recently won a corrupt reelection. His brother is allegedly involved in the country's vast, illicit drug trade without which Afghanistan would hardly have an economy at all. The country is often compared to Iraq where, for the time being, a surge did work. But Iraq is different. It always had a middle class and has, in just one telling statistic, a literacy rate of 74.1 percent. Afghanistan's is a dismal 28.1. If there were such a thing as the Fourth World, Afghanistan would be in it.

Sooner or later, truly evil people either get talk shows or killed by pilotless drones. The latter will be the fate of Osama bin Laden and his band of monsters -- and the sooner the better. The Taliban may well take over Afghanistan -- a calamity for women and girls, among others -- but not really more morally dismal than the United States standing by in 1991 as Saddam Hussein slaughtered Iraqi Shiites because it did not affect our national security. The real concern is Pakistan and its nukes. Should any of them go loose, we may learn the hard way what really caused the dinosaurs to become extinct.

There are many good reasons to put as much as we can in Afghanistan. But America has been at war there since 2001, at war in Iraq since 2003, and like Britain between the world wars, is out of both treasure and patience. Leave Afghanistan to the drones and the Special Forces. It's no way to win, but it's a good way not to lose.

cohenr@washpost.com



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