Saturday, November 14, 2009

Why the Afghan Surge Will Fail

Why the Afghan Surge Will Fail


By Conn Hallinan

Foreign Policy in Focus

November 13, 2009


Before the Obama administration buys into General

Stanley McChrystal's escalation strategy, it might

spend some time examining the August 12 battle of

Dananeh, a scruffy little town of 2,000 perched at the

entrance to the Naw Zad Valley in Afghanistan's

southern Helmand province.


Dananeh is a textbook example of why counterinsurgency

won't work in that country, as well as a case study in

military thinking straight out of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.


Strategic Towns


According to the United States, the purpose of the

attack was to seize a "strategic" town, cut "Taliban

supply lines," and secure the area for the presidential

elections. Taking Dananeh would also "outflank the

insurgents," "isolating" them in the surrounding

mountains and forests.


What is wrong with this scenario?


One, the concept of a "strategic" town of 2,000 people

in a vast country filled with tens of thousands of

villages like Dananeh is bizarre.


Two, the Taliban don't have "flanks." They are a fluid,

irregular force, not an infantry company dug into a set

position. "Flanking" an enemy is what you did to the

Wehrmacht in World War II.


Three, "Taliban supply lines" are not highways and rail

intersections. They're goat trails.


Four, "isolate" the Taliban in the surrounding

mountains and forests? Obviously, no one in the

Pentagon has ever read the story of Brer Rabbit, who

taunted his adversary with the famous words, "Please

don't throw me in the briar patch, Brer Fox." Mountains

and forests are where the Taliban move freely.


The Taliban were also not the slightest bit surprised

when the United States showed up. When the Marines

helicoptered in at night, all was quiet. At dawn - the

Taliban have no night-fighting equipment - the

insurgents opened up with rockets, mortars, and machine

guns. "I am pretty sure they knew of it [the attack] in

advance," Golf Company commander Captain Zachary Martin

told the Associated Press.


Pinned down, the Marines brought in air power and

artillery and, after four days of fierce fighting, took

the town. But the Taliban had decamped on the third

night. The outcome? A chewed-up town and 12 dead

insurgents - that is, if you don't see a difference

between an "insurgent" and a villager who didn't get

out in time, so that all the dead are automatically

members of the Taliban.


"I'd say we've gained a foothold for now, and it's a

substantial one that we're not going to let go," says

Martin. "I think this has the potential to be a watershed."


Only if hallucinations become the order of the day.


Irregular Warfare


The battle of Dananeh was a classic example of

irregular warfare. The locals tip off the guerrillas

that the army is coming. The Taliban set up an ambush,

fight until the heavy firepower comes in, then slip away.


"Taliban fighters and their commanders have escaped the

Marines' big offensive into Afghanistan's Helmand

province and moved into areas to the west and north,

prompting fears that the U.S. effort has just moved the

Taliban problem elsewhere," writes Nancy Youssef of the

McClatchy newspapers.


When the Taliban went north they attacked German and Italian troops.


In short, the insurgency is adjusting. "To many of the

Americans, it appeared as if the insurgents had

attended something akin to the U.S. Army's Ranger

school, which teaches soldiers how to fight in small

groups in austere environments," writes Karen DeYoung

in The Washington Post.


Actually, the Afghans have been doing that for some

time, as Greeks, Mongols, British, and Russians discovered.


One Pentagon officer told the Post that the Taliban has

been using the Korengal Valley that borders Pakistan as

a training ground. It's "a perfect lab to vet fighters

and study U.S. tactics," he said, and to learn how to

gauge the response time for U.S. artillery, air

strikes, and helicopter assaults. "They know exactly

how long it takes before...they have to break contact

and pull back."


Just like they did at Dananeh.


McChrystal's Plan


General McChrystal has asked for 40,000 new troops in

order to hold the "major" cities and secure the

population from the Taliban. But even by its own

standards, the plan is deeply flawed. The military's

Counterinsurgency Field Manual recommends a ratio of 20

soldiers for every 1,000 residents. Since Afghanistan

has a population of slightly over 32 million, that

would require a force of 660,000 soldiers.


The United States will shortly have 68,000 troops in

Afghanistan, plus a stealth surge of 13,000 support

troops. If the Pentagon sends 40,000 additional troops,

U.S. forces will rise to 121,000. Added to that are

35,000 NATO troops, though most alliance members are

under increasing domestic pressure to withdraw their

soldiers. McChrystal wants to expand the Afghan army to

240,000, and there is talk of trying to reach 340,000.


Even with the larger Afghan army, the counterinsurgency

plan is 150,000 soldiers short.


An Afghan Army?


And can you really count on the Afghan army? It doesn't

have the officers and sergeants to command 340,000

troops. And the counterinsurgency formula calls for

"trained" troops, not just armed boots on the ground.

According to a recent review, up to 25% of recruits

quit each year, and the number of trained units has

actually declined over the past six months.


On top of this, Afghanistan doesn't really have a

national army. If Pashtun soldiers are deployed in the

Tajik-speaking north, they will be seen as occupiers,

and vice-versa for Tajiks in Pashtun areas. If both

groups are deployed in their home territories, the

pressures of kinship will almost certainly overwhelm

any allegiance to a national government, particularly

one as corrupt and unpopular as the current Karzai regime.


And by defending the cities, exactly whom will U.S.

troops be protecting? When it comes to Afghanistan,

"major" population centers are almost a contradiction

in terms. There are essentially five cities in the

country, Kabul (2.5 million), Kandahar (331,000),

Mazar-e-Sharif (200,000), Herat (272,000), and

Jalalabad (20,000). Those five cities make up a little

more than 10% of the population, over half of which is

centered in Kabul. The rest of the population is rural,

living in towns of 1,500 or fewer, smaller even than Dananeh.


But spreading the troops into small firebases makes

them extremely vulnerable, as the United States found

out in early September, when eight soldiers were killed

in an attack on a small unit in the Kamdesh district of

Nuristan province. The base was abandoned a week later

and, according to the Asia Times, is now controlled by the Taliban.


MRAP Attack


While McChrystal says he wants to get the troops out of

"armored vehicles" and into the streets with the

people, the United States will have to use patrols to

maintain a presence outside of the cities. On occasion,

that can get almost comedic. Take the convoy of Stryker

light tanks that set out on October 12 from "Forward

Operating Base Spin Boldak" in Khandar province for

what was described as a "high-risk mission into

uncharted territory."


The convoy was led by the new Mine Resistant Ambush

Protected (MRAP) vehicles designed to resist the

insurgent's weapon-of-choice in Afghanistan, roadside

bombs. But the MRAP was designed for Iraq, which has

lots of good roads. Since Afghanistan has virtually no

roads, the MRAPs broke down. Without the MRAPs the

Strykers could not move. The "high-risk" mission ended

up hunkering down in the desert for the night and

slogging home in the morning. They never saw an insurgent.


Afterwards, Sergeant John Belajac remarked, "I can't

imagine what it is going to be like when it starts raining."


If you are looking for an Afghanistan War metaphor, the

Spin Boldak convoy may be it.


Dangerous Illusions


McChrystal argues that the current situation is

"critical," and that an escalation "will be decisive."

But as former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst A.J.

Rossmiller says, the war is a stalemate. "The

insurgency does not have the capability to defeat U.S.

forces or depose Afghanistan's central government,

and...U.S. forces do not the ability to vanquish the

insurgency." While the purported goal of the war is

denying al-Qaeda a sanctuary, according to U.S.

intelligence the organization has fewer than 100

fighters in the country. And further, the Taliban's

leader, Mullah Omar, pledges that his organization will

not interfere with Afghanistan's neighbors or the West,

which suggests that the insurgents have been learning

about diplomacy as well.


The Afghanistan War can only be solved by sitting all

the parties down and working out a political

settlement. Since the Taliban have already made a

seven-point peace proposal, that hardly seems an

insurmountable task.


Anything else is a dangerous illusion.


© 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus


Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.


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