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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fareed Zakaria, Roger Cohen About Surge in Afghanistan

What strategy to follow in Afghanistan? Here are the opinions of two well-known political pundits, Fareed Zakaria and Roger Cohen.

Fareed Zakaria in Washington Post:

Dick Cheney has accused Barack Obama of dithering over Afghanistan. If the president were to quickly invade a country on the basis of half-baked intelligence, would that demonstrate his courage and decisiveness to Cheney? In fact, it's not a bad idea for Obama to take his time, examine all options and watch how the post-election landscape in Afghanistan evolves.

The real question we should be asking about Afghanistan is: Do we need a third surge? The number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in January 2008 was 26,607. Over the next six months, the total rose to 48,250. President Bush described this policy as the quiet surge, and he made the standard arguments about the need for a counterinsurgency capacity -- the troops had to not only fight the Taliban but also protect the Afghan population, strengthen and train the Afghan army and police, and assist in development.

In January, 3,000 more troops, originally ordered by Bush, went to Afghanistan in the first days of the Obama presidency. In February, responding to a request from the commander in the field, Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops into the country. Put another way, over the past 18 months, troop levels in Afghanistan have almost tripled. Sending an additional 40,000 troops would mean an over 300 percent increase in U.S. troops since 2008. (The total surge in Iraq was just over 20,000 troops.) It is not dithering to try to figure out why previous increases have not worked and why we think additional ones would.

In fact, focusing on the number of additional troops needed misses the point entirely, says Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander Obama put in place this summer. The key takeaway from his now-famous assessment is the urgent need for a significant change to our strategy and the way we think and operate. The quotes are from the third paragraph of his 66-page memo. These changes in strategy have just begun.

To understand how U.S. troops had been fighting in Afghanistan, consider the Battle of Wanat. On July 13, 2008, a large number of Taliban fighters surrounded an American base in that village, in the southeastern corner of Afghanistan. After a few hours of fierce fighting, nine American soldiers lay dead, the largest number killed in a single engagement in years. Former Post reporter and defense expert Tom Ricks points out that Wanat is in a mountainous region with few people, many of them hostile to outsiders. So, he asks, Why are we putting our fist in a hornet's nest?

McChrystal has since pulled U.S. forces out of Wanat. The Post's Greg Jaffe, reporting on the town a year later, concluded recently that ceding territory to the Taliban is more effective than maintaining small, vulnerable bases in forbidding terrain. In the past several weeks, U.S. commanders, based about six miles outside the village, have detected growing friction between Wanat residents and the Taliban commanders responsible for last year's attack. So why not let the Taliban try to set up bases in these remote areas with prickly locals? NATO forces can then periodically disrupt the Taliban rather than the other way around. In these places, counter-terrorism -- now often associated with Vice President Biden -- could work well with the grain of Afghan society.

Advocates of a troop increase act as if counterinsurgency is applied physics. McChrystal's team, having done the mathematical calculations, has apparently arrived at the exact answer. There is no room for variation or middle courses, the argument goes. But the theory that it's 40,000 troops or no counterinsurgency is absurd. The best evidence is that senior military officers assured me at various points over the past year that with the latest increase in troops they finally had enough forces to do counterinsurgency.

The crucial judgments that have to be made involve what the troops will do and how much of Afghanistan to cover. One option is the idea Ricks recently suggested to me: Why not do the Petraeus plan [counterinsurgency] for the major population centers and the Biden plan [counterterrorism] for the rest of the country? Following that middle course might be the most practical solution; more forces could still be needed, as McChrystal suggests, or perhaps we can make do with the almost 100,000 coalition forces already there. Obama should carefully consider all the options before racing to demonstrate how tough he is.

Roger Cohen in NY Times:

In Afghanistan there’s the United States, Britain and then the rest. Britain has lost 85 soldiers this year, more than all other European NATO allies combined. For both countries the annual death toll has been rising steadily since 2006, and with it the drumbeat of public opposition to the war. In all, more than 1,100 U.S. and British troops have died.

Special relationships are forged in blood; the U.S.-British bond is no exception. So, as President Obama hesitates, his decision on American troop levels ever weeks away as the weeks pass, the British view of the war offers as good an indication as any of what Obama will do. An hour-long conversation with David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, suggests reinforcements are on the way.

When I asked if the mission needed substantially more troops, Miliband said, What I think that you can see from the prime minister’s strategy is that we believe in serious counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency is a counterterrorist strategy.

He continued: The Taliban has shown what it means to provide safe space for Al Qaeda. Describing the fights against the Taliban and Al Qaeda as distinctive but related missions, Miliband said the badlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan are the incubator of choice for international terrorism, adding that, Ceding ground happened in the ’90s and then we all know what happened.

That’s a clear rebuttal of the ever-larger school, most often identified with Vice President Joe Biden, advancing the view that Al Qaeda is the real threat, the Taliban much less of one; and so the United States should not commit more military resources to a nation-building struggle in Afghanistan that’s an expensive diversion from core U.S. strategic interests.

Wrong. Counterinsurgency in the Af-Pak theater is indeed a counterterrorist strategy. I see no workable distinction.

As Prime Minister Gordon Brown has noted, three-quarters of all terrorist plots uncovered in Britain in recent years had links to Islamic extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The defense of the West begins in the Hindu Kush and Helmand. Would-be bombers must be kept off-balance. To believe otherwise is wishful thinking.

But of course the campaign has to be smart. Miliband identified several things that have to change, among them governance, outreach and military strategy.

Whatever Afghan government emerges has to be credible, where Hamid Karzai’s administration has not been, and provide a new offer to the Afghan people of security and economic development.

Miliband also called for serious outreach to the insurgency to divide it, estimating that 70 to 80 percent of the foot soldiers are recruitable. The choice they are being given now is fight or flight where it should be fight, flight or flip because an enduring settlement must be a political settlement in which conservative Pashtun nationalism has a place.

That’s critical. The Taliban are a Pashtun movement. Pashtunistan straddles the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. Afghanistan has always been ungovernable without a Pashtun buy-in. Pakistan’s strategic interest in that buy-in is non-negotiable. These are basic — but long ignored — building blocks of successful strategy.

Finally, Miliband argued for a different focus to military operations. Occupying land for the sake of occupying land is not what counts, he said. It’s population. You need to make sure the major cities are secured and Kandahar is vital.

These were the convictions behind Brown’s decision earlier this month to send 500 more British troops to Afghanistan, bringing the contingent to 9,500 — a decision the prime minister expected to be consistent with what the Americans will decide.

The reinforcement was about one quarter of what British generals had requested. In the U.S. case, Gen. Stanley McChrystal has asked for about 40,000 more troops. Doing the math on a consistent basis suggests a substantial American reinforcement short of McChrystal’s request will eventually be announced by the White House.

I asked Miliband if Obama’s protracted ponder worried the Brits. Miliband pondered in turn before saying, No, I think it’s a measure of the seriousness with which he takes the decision.

O.K., but I still worry. If counterinsurgency is counterterrorism, if this theater is the incubator of choice, if McChrystal is the most lucid product of America’s crash post-9/11 course in counterinsurgency, then Obama should step up.

Beyond Kabul I got these two nuggets from Miliband. Asked how worried he was about an Israeli military strike on Iran, he said: I don’t provide a running commentary on other countries’ concerns or policies, but we are one hundred percent committed to a diplomatic resolution.

Asked about a Mideast peace, he said, It’s very stalled and that’s very dangerous. He said Israeli settlements must stop, calling them illegal and an obstacle to peace. He said: I profoundly believe that Israel’s security depends on a two-state solution and I think that a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders plus or minus agreed land swaps, with Jerusalem as a shared capital, and a fair settlement of the refugee issue is the right basis for Israel’s future as well as the Palestinians’ future.

I have not heard President Obama be quite as candid. It would help.

Zoon Politikon)

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