An Afghan 'Surge' no sure Winner

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One of the Pentagons top policymakers warned Thursday that a surge of U.S. troops to Afghanistan like the one executed in Iraq 18 months ago doesnt recognize the complexities of the Taliban and al Qaeda-sponsored violence there and could backfire.

Eric Edelman, the Pentagons top civilian policy advisor to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, said the situation in Afghanistan is far different than the one faced by U.S. troops in Iraq during the darkest days of sectarian violence in 2006,

We shouldnt just focus on the numbers of forces, Edelman told defense reporters at a Nov. 13 breakfast meeting in Washington. The success of the surge in Iraq, in my view, was less a function of the increased numbers it was what they were doing that mattered.

The single-minded focus on whats the level of force is wrong headed because there are a lot of elements that go into it and theres no magic number, he added.

Edelman said the Pentagon had executed what he called a silent surge of about 30,000 U.S. and NATO troops into Afghanistan in 2006, but the scale of the insurgency began to outpace even the steps that we had taken.

While Iraq has a well educated population, an oil-based economy and is mainly urban, Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world, with illiteracy reaching close to 80 percent for males and per capita wages close to 50 percent of those in Haiti.

There are very large differences between the circumstances in Afghanistan and the circumstances in Iraq, Edelman said. Its very complicated and I dont think its a one size fits all there.

Edelman blamed Pakistans previous regime, led by Pervez Musharraf, for negotiating a series of cease fires that allowed the Taliban and al Qaeda sympathizers to regroup and pour militants into the anti-coalition fight across the Afghan border.

The counsel against launching a large troop buildup in Afghanistan to tame the violence comes as President-elect Barack Obama continues to call for a two brigade increase in forces to counter growing Taliban and al Qaeda-sponsored violence.

Advisors to Obama have emphasized the need for soft power to tame the anti-coalition insurgency in Afghanistan, including increases in military trainers, added diplomatic initiatives and more economic outreach.

There are opportunities to use capabilities besides military power in Afghanistan that have been underdeveloped in administration policy up until now, top Obama advisor and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig told reporters last month. It is very important to engage the Afghans as much as possible themselves.

But Obama advisors also continue to insist that the nearly 6,000 additional U.S. troops are necessary to push militants out once and for all.

Edelman stressed that some elements of the counterinsurgency doctrine that worked in Iraq could be applied to Afghanistan, particularly the notion of separating the insurgents from the population and to clear, hold and build on territory won back from the militants grip. But the ethnic complexities, degrees of anti-American sentiment among what he called big T and little T Taliban and deep cultural biases against occupation make Afghanistan a longer term commitment.

Its not going to be an easy cookie-cutter transfer of one to the other, Edelman said.

Obama advisors argue the additional brigades for Afghanistan will come directly from reductions in Iraq. But commanders in Iraq, Edelman added, worry that a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces along the lines of the 16-month plan advocated by Obama could erase the surges gains during a crucial period of provincial and national elections.

For that reason, Edelman said he expects an Obama administration to move conservatively in reducing troop levels in Iraq.

The new administration, he said, will "try and make sure the U.S. plays a role as the guarantor of free and fair elections, and that the notion of politics as a zero sum game in Iraq doesnt get loose again, which could lead to some unraveling of the security gains.

-- Christian

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