Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The surge in Afghanistan

President Barak Obama is expected to announce a new Afghan strategy that would bring in an additional 30,000 American troops to Afghanistan.  Once the additional troops from the United States and other NATO countries arrive in Afghanistan, the total number of troops will approach 150,000, which would be almost 50,000 more than the Russian soldiers at their peak in Afghanistan.

If you are hoping for the surge in Afghanistan to restore peace even in the long-term, I would advise you not to hold your breath.  Here are the reasons behind my lack of optimism for the surge. First, because of the logistics constraints, such as the lack of housing for the additional troops, it would take months to install the additional troops in Afghanistan.  Second, the surge in Afghanistan is likely to increase the hostilities in Afghanistan against the NATO troops.  Additional NATO presence in Afghanistan would further legitimize the opposition by the Taliban in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, especially Pushtuns.

Third, even with 150,000 NATO troops on ground in Afghanistan, the number falls much short of the numbers required to restore peace in Afghanistan, and not just in Kabul or its suburbs, and along some strategic trade routes.  In the past, high ranking British officials have put the number at over 300,000 troops (others have suggested 600,000 troops) for restoring normalcy in Afghanistan.  The additional 30,000 troops are unlikely to be able to improve the safety of ordinary Afghans, but may be able to improve the safety of NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Fourth, irrespective of the number of troops that NATO would install in Afghanistan, a long-term solution would not be possible without an effective Afghan army that is seen legitimate by the Pushtuns, who constitute the largest minority, and other ethnic minorities in Afghanistan.  Given the Afghan parliament comprising of warlords and drug traffickers and the shoddy leadership of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who retained his presidency in a largely rigged election, a quick fix in Afghanistan is out of question even with a 250,000 strong Afghan army, which would take another 10 years to raise.

Fifth, the comparisons with the surge in Iraq and the improvement in security are misleading to begin with.  It has to be recognized that the improvement in law and order in Iraq has less to do with the increase in the number of U.S. troops and more to do with Iraq's demographics.  The Shiites, who constitute the majority in Iraq, were able to take a more prominent role in governance in the post-Saddam Iraq. The violence that ensued after the Bathists (mostly Sunnis) were removed from power in Iraq was predominantly perpetrated by the Sunnis, who were not keen on giving up control over Iraq and its wealth.  It took a few years before the government in Iraq, which was led by the Shiites, to enforce itself as well as to develop a relative consensus regarding governance in Iraq. 

Furthermore, the internal migration of Shiites to the Shia majority areas of Iraq and of Sunnis to the Sunni minority areas of Iraq further reduced the possibility of sectarian violence.  The resulting fortified communities made it difficult for the opposing sects to attack each other. This happened not only at the intercity level, but also within each city.  Therefore, Baghdad of today is much more segregated than it was 10 years ago.  The new equilibrium resulting from the internal mass migrations has contributed more to the improvement in law and order than the increased number of U.S. troops in Iraq. 

Sixth, even after years in Afghanistan, NATO troops cannot distinguish between foes, friends, and the ordinary Afghans.  The loss of life and property of innocent civilians, often referred to as the collateral damage, has become the biggest scandal in Afghanistan.  Ordinary Afghans are almost equally likely to be killed by the Taliban as they are to be killed by the NATO forces.  The former head of the Canadian armed forces, General Rick Hillier, recently testified in Ottawa and admitted that the Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan could not differentiate between the Afghan farmers and the Taliban. The General said: "Yes, we probably detained the occasional farmer - and whether they were farmers by day and Taliban by night, which is often the case, is something that is very difficult to discern."

General Hillier’s words should serve as and eye-opener for the NATO policymakers. The retired General fails to recognize his mistakes despite admitting that the Canadian soldiers could not even identify the enemy with certainty. It was only a few years ago in July 2005 when General Hillier was much more sure-footed as he boasted to the Canadian reporters at a lunch that Canada’s elite JTF2 soldiers would target the “detestable murderers and scumbags” in Afghanistan. Four years after the tall claim in 2005, it turns out that the NATO forces couldn’t even distinguish between scumbags and ordinary Afghans.

Writing in today's Guardian, Malalai Joya, an outspoken Afghan politician and former member of the Parliament, mentions that the troops surge is likely to “magnify the crime against Afghanistan.” She points out that the eight-year long NATO's intervention in Afghanistan has only worsen the lives of ordinary Afghans.  She points out that Afghanistan was ranked the second most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International.  The United Nations development report lists Afghanistan as the second least developed country of the 182 nations in 2009.  Other indicators of human development in Afghanistan, such as the infant mortality rates, have also worsened over the years as well as .

Given the worsening of safety and security for ordinary Afghans and the lack of any sustainable development over the past eight years in Afghanistan, NATO has not much to show for progress on the ground.  With the existing NATO strategy not working in Afghanistan, adding more troops shows a complete lack of introspection on part of the NATO leadership.  By doing more of the same, NATO would hope to see different results in Afghanistan.  The reality is that doing more of the same would only result in even bigger problems in Afghanistan than the ones NATO is struggling to solve.

Some Canadian analysts are trying to convince the Canadian leadership that by leading and bleeding in Afghanistan Canada has earned the respect of other NATO countries, more so of the United States.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  For starters, leading and bleeding in Afghanistan has not even earned the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, the privilege of receiving a phone call from President Obama, who did call President Sarkozy of France, President Zardari of Pakistan, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of England to apprise them personally of the US plans regarding Afghanistan.  In fact, the Canadian leading and bleeding in Afghanistan has earned Canada a call from Vice President Joe Biden.

The reality remains that the support to keep NATO troops in Afghanistan has been declining over the years.  Polling by the Pew Global Attitudes Project suggests that with the exception of Israel and United States, the balance of opinion in developed economies is not in favor of maintaining troops in Afghanistan.


The prudent thing for President Obama is to announce a withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan by committing to hard deadlines.  There are lessons to be learned from the Russian withdrawal from Afghanistan when the announcement for the withdrawal was made in one February and the troops marched back into Soviet Union by the next February.

The goal for NATO and other developed economies should be to help Afghanistan raise its own armed forces and to set up a political leadership that does not comprise of warlords and drug traffickers.  The focus should be on rebuilding the institutions and infrastructure in Afghanistan and not active combat.  Furthermore, Afghanistan’s neighbours need to be reminded that their role in Afghanistan should be constructive, rather than setting up proxy governments by backing militants and warlords.  The United States and other NATO countries have enough financial means to convince Afghanistan in its neighbours to do the right thing. 

Regardless of how much we abhor the Taliban (who are Pushtuns) and what they stand for, we in the west have to recognize that they will be part of the future governments because of Afghanistan’s demographics where the largest minority are Pushtuns.

The post-NATO Afghanistan would be the same regardless of when NATO leaves.  It is prudent that the  NATO leaves sooner so that the Afghans can start to resolve their differences without foreign intervention.

With NATO troops in combat in Afghanistan and foreign nationals making the key decisions in Afghanistan, Afghans do not enjoy the ownership of the state and its institutions. Consider that a Canadian national heads the election commission of Afghanistan that presided over the rigged presidential elections. This does not bode well for the ordinary Afghans who feel  disenfranchised in their own homeland.

The last point about the war in Afghanistan is to understand that a war ends when one warring faction surrenders.  This is an unlikely scenario in Afghanistan.  If the Taliban could no longer fight against the NATO forces, they would pack up and return to their lives as farmers.  They will hold on until the NATO forces leave Afghanistan to take up arms against the government in Kabul.  This eventuality cannot be avoided and hence needs to be dealt with now than later.

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