Sunday, August 2, 2009

Will the Afghan Gamble Pay Off?

The thing that I like about the Surge-like offensive in Afghanistan is that it is likely to produce a more decisive strategic-political path within a few months than a more conservative approach was likely to determine.

There are obviously problems--the biggest is deaths, both the number and the type. After a short two days, there are already 9 coalition deaths, all of which were from roadside attacks or other ambushes, rather than from coalition-led assaults. As I've mentioned before, this is tough on morale. If this rate of death keeps up, the US public is going to seriously reconsider the wisdom and efficacy of leaving troops as sitting ducks in Helmand.

The Brits are already getting ready to leave. Public opinion in the UK is dismal--over half of Brits think that the war is unwinnable and that troops should be withdrawn right away. The increasingly-popular Tories are having trouble resisting the political temptation to pull for withdrawal.

The offensive is clearly a gamble; the Brits need results either to improve public opinion or to simply see themselves as accomplishing as much as possible before an increasingly-inevitable pullout. But the loss of the Brits would be an incredible blow to the already-stretched thin Americans, and a boon for the Taliban. It is difficult to imagine the war being won if the UK were to disappear in the near future.

The other tough part about the offensive is the difficulty in which one observes tangible results. The Taliban denied NATO the satisfaction of sticking around and fighting. Now, training and development dominate US/UK strategy, along with the occasional hunting mission--but the Taliban remain elusive. And when the US/UK inevitably leave Helmand (some time after the elections), they will certainly emerge from their hiding places to reclaim their place--the question is whether the US/UK will have created a sufficiently impressive security environment that they can resist collapse and dissolution under insurgent pressure (the Taliban are unlikely to give the US/UK the easy option of engaging Afghan forces directly in a conventional, protracted battle, lest the US send air cavalry right back in).

Whether this security training is sufficient is a nearly unanswerable question from my deskchair in Cambridge, but it is the crux of the gamble. The US must train hard, fast, and well, create buy-in from the populace (such that the Taliban does not have an extensive network of safehouses, informants, etc, upon their return), and keep enough reserve troops on-hand for long enough to provide pinpoint support to any brash assaults from the Taliban--at the same time, the military must protect itself and prevent casualties from spiraling, lest necessity take over and lead to their premature withdrawal. It is a daunting task.

If the US/UK can "win" in Helmand, I expect they are likely to use it to improve the bargaining position of the Afghani government with any Taliban. Currently, the Taliban refuse to come to the bargaining table until all foreign troops have left, but the US/UK/Afghan governments fear (with good reason) that a unilateral withdrawal at this point would lead to another Taliban takeover of the country. Withdrawal, therefore, is only an option as much as a loss of objectives is.
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