Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Afghanistan Surge

The US has proposed a surge in Afghanistan--almost 30,000 troops--which would double the size of the US force there. As a percentage of the overall force, it is much higher than the force sent to Iraq. And the strategy will be greatly different from Iraq, as well. Afghanistan is not suffering from an ethnosectarian civil war. The insurgency is not urban--on the contrary, the government tends to have control of cities even in otherwise heavily-Talibanized areas. Militants thrive in the mountains and villages where the government and NATO struggle to exert their control--it's all a very different beast.

The strategy lies in a point made by JCS Chairman Mike Mullen: mainly that Taliban militants typically get routed when they engage US troops directly. A few notable exceptions remain, like the Khandahar prison raid in June. But in general, the Taliban makes trouble where the US _isn't_. (This is in contrast to Anbar province of Iraq, where trouble followed the US wherever it went)

The idea is that more troops can keep the peace in the south and possibly systematically root out Taliban presence from the north. An oil spot security strategy is doable, though it requires very deep integration (or intrusion) into the lives of Afghanis. But keeping peace down is unlikely to lead to a negotiation, like it did in Iraq (along with many other factors). The Taliban say they won't negotiate with Karzai as long as US troops are on their soil. And they're decades-old extremists that ejected the Soviets after nearly a decade. They're patient, and willing to put up with a lot of punishment.

So the only reasonable strategy here is to make Afghanistan a "safe zone" with overwhelming security, and then deal with Pakistan separately. The Afghan war cannot be won without Pakistan falling into place, of course: the minute US troops leave Afghanistan, free militants in Pakistan would pour in to reconquer the country, or at least some chunk of it that the Afghan army can't handle.

India is putting massive pressure on the Pakistanis--enough that they are letting leak that they are planning their own precision strikes in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The move is risky, and could risk war... but it is unclear whether the move on India's part would be harmful or helpful to NATO operations in Afghanistan. If there is a war, then the state falls apart and the militants thrive--unless NATO joins the war and makes it quick and decisive. Pakistan is unlikely to become an Indo-NATO joint mandate territory, but a decisive war could mean that certain parts of Pakistan's territory come under the security administration of NATO and India. China and Russia will certainly veto any resolutions to get the UN's blessing, and that will hinder such a deal from being made.

Pakistan knows it's in a lot of trouble. The US is still striking in its territory, and India is about to. The current government cannot afford to do nothing, but they also cannot afford a losing war with India. China would even be unlikely to get involved--Pakistan is an ally, but good relations with India are incredibly important. Domestically, the Pakistani government is rather doomed no matter what it does. Going after militants in-country is nearly impossible for Pakistan (due to domestic pressure, an ineffectual military, and a corrupted intelligence operation)--so ultimately, they're likely to face the wrath of India.

The Afghanistan/Pakistan situation has deteriorated to an unlivable level. General Petraeus, in charge of all of CENTCOM now, is going to try to work his magic a second time around in Afghanistan, and see if he can't save the second US-led folly in a row.
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