Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Afghanistan Surge

On December 1st, President Barack Obama took the long-anticipated step of sending an additional 30,000 US combat troops to Afghanistan. This will raise the total US troop commitment to between 100,000 – 105,000 troops, taking into account the 71,000 already in the country. NATO and other allies have an estimated additional 42,000 troops in Afghanistan.

I was struck by the negative reaction by Michael Moore and other liberals. Obama’s actions are somehow seen as a betrayal of core ideals, as war-mongering. Many commentators stated that Obama’s speech could have been delivered by George W. Bush. Take a look at the opening paragraph of Michael Moore’s November 30th letter to Barack Obama:

If you go to West Point tomorrow night (Tuesday, 8pm) and announce that you are increasing, rather than withdrawing, the troops in Afghanistan, you are the new war president. Pure and simple. And with that you will do the worst possible thing you could do -- destroy the hopes and dreams so many millions have placed in you.

Yet a surge of troops in Afghanistan has been a core platform of Obama’s election campaign. The plan to draw down troops from Iraq and re-deploy combat brigades to Afghanistan has been one of his earliest campaign pledges, as his website still shows:

Barack Obama will refocus our efforts on Afghanistan. He has a comprehensive strategy to succeed in Afghanistan with at least two more U.S. combat brigades, more resources and training for the Afghan Army, and a comprehensive development strategy.

What strikes me most of all is that the American public has perhaps finally realised that the war in Afghanistan is increasingly difficult to justify. On the one hand, the elected “government” of the country has lapsed into unbridled corruption and in many cases collusion with the Taleban. On the other hand, the situation in Pakistan is dire, all denials by that country’s government notwithstanding. All these facts have long been known to anyone with even the most cursory interest in the matter.

The costs of a combat deployment of 100,000 US troops in Afghanistan are likely to exceed $ 100 billion per year, using the rule of thumb that each 1,000 troops cost about $ 1 billion. This does not include the costs of replacing or repairing damaged equipment, treating long-term casualties, etc. Taking all associated costs into account, I doubt that this engagement will be any “cheaper” than Iraq, as some commentators have said in recent months.

Another interesting point: the lessons of the Iraq surge have been incorporated into the current plan for Afghanistan. There are resources for development, although these are a small proportion of the amount spent on military operations. There are sufficient analyses and policy statement on the causes of terrorism and extremism, methods of countering them, and ways forward, dating all the way back to the original Afghanistan Compact of 2001.

What remains to be seen is whether the West has the political will and the financial resources to actually implement these lessons. I sincerely doubt that it does, and I do not say this as a means of criticism, but of simple, rational evaluation of costs and benefits.

At one point, the alliance that is fighting in Afghanistan will have to decide whether it can afford to sacrifice men, blood and treasure to this conflict, for which it has no real strategic reason to be in which could not be better addressed by other means.

My feeling is that this point occurred in 2005-2006 for the majority of countries involved. It is only the self-interest of individual politicians that has sustained the level of troop commitment until now.

My predictions for the next two years: the surge will partially succeed, but 18 months will not be enough to create the conditions for lasting peace and prosperity needed to provide stability to Afghanistan. In contrast, the Taleban and Al Qaeda will play a waiting game in this time until political costs force the inevitable retreat of western troops.

In these 18 months, we will see higher casualties from IEDs and other indirect attacks than by open combat between western and Taleban units, and we will see that even 30,000 additional troops will not be able to “clear and hold” the ground in the south east of Afghanistan. The 1,500 mile border with Pakistan will continue to be porous. Despite active combat operations, I expect US fatalities to remain [relatively] low in this period, perhaps on the order of 150-200 troops.

Conditions in Pakistan and Afghanistan will deteriorate in terms of governance and political involvement. In Afghanistan, I doubt President Karzai will make any meaningful reform of the public sector or the involvement of warlords in governing the country. He will probably use every opportunity to criticize the west to detract attention from the real problems of the country. He will become increasingly despised and denigrated in the western media.

In Pakistan, I would not at all be surprised to see a new military dictatorship within the next 24 months, either in open or concealed form, and a new arrangement reached with Taleban groups to halt open warfare between the Pakistani Army and the Taleban. It is regrettable that neither Presidents Karzai or Zardari appear to be able to unify their own countries, at least in terms acceptable to western public opinion. But there are no easy answers to this issue.

The ultimate question is: “Is it worth it?” The easy answer is “no.” Bringing peace and stability to this area will take at least 25 years and civilian spending of at least $ 25-30 billion per year in excess of military spending. I don’t see any signs that anyone in the West is prepared for such a commitment, and indeed, most countries are considering their exit options. The US surge itself has a built-in expiration date.

However, you also have to ask what other options exist. Are we really prepared to exit Afghanistan and usher in a new dark age as the country sinks back into the pre-Taleban, Somali-like condition it was in before the Taleban consolidated control? What happens to Pakistan, and its 100-odd nuclear warheads? What happens to neighbouring countries such as Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, which will be the next dominos to fall?

Difficult questions to answer. No such discussion can make up for even one life lost. On the other hand, very few such discussions highlight the good taking place on the ground in Afghanistan by international development efforts, or outline what should be done to expand these efforts so that within a generation, they can provide a lasting effect.

We seem once again condemned to launch grand initiatives destined to end in failure. Is the right course to try in the face of overwhelming odds, spending hundreds of billions of dollars and “sacrificing” hundreds of lives? Or to withdraw in the face of overwhelming odds, thus spending tens of billions of dollars and condemning thousands of lives to death and repression?

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