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More Boots, And Wheels, to Afghanistan

After some delay, the Obama administration is finally sending reinforcements to Afghanistan, months after they were first requested by the top American commander there, Gen. David McKiernan.

Four more combat brigades were needed to stage a counter-offensive against more than a dozen insurgent groups, McKiernan argued. Those attacks have grown increasingly brazen, such as last week’s suicide bombings in Kabul. SecDef Gates signed the orders yesterday that will send an Army Stryker brigade and a Marine Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan beginning this spring, a total of 12,000 combat troops, adding to the 38,000 U.S. troops already there.

As important as the added combat troops and highly mobile Strykers, the Pentagon said it is also sending a combat aviation brigade from the 82nd Airborne that is due to arrive this spring. Heavily laden U.S. troops trying to chase down fleet-footed mujahedeen fighters in Afghanistan’s rugged, mountainous terrain are hobbled by a lack of helicopters. The helicopter shortage there is so acute that American wounded must wait up to two hours, or longer, for a medevac. A single Army aviation brigade is currently in Afghanistan.

Will the additional troops make a difference? They are almost certain to have a tactical effect, if they are used to stem the free-flow of insurgents and weapons into Afghanistan from Pakistan and to establish some semblance of security on the main transportation routes, a natural mission for the Strykers. The major insurgent lines of operation are southwest of Kabul, around Khost, where insurgents cross over the mountainous border from the lawless FATA region of Pakistan, launch attacks, and then scurry back to their sanctuaries. The other major insurgent highway is the actual highway from the Pakistani city of Quetta to Kandahar.

A report by the International Council on Security and Development that compiled reported insurgent attacks in 2008 shows that those attacks closely follow the major supply routes and are directed against targets-of-opportunity, where security forces are absent. Running Strykers up and down those roads should make a big difference. But rooting out the insurgents permanently will be a much tougher task.

A report out this week, authored by RAND’s Seth Jones, a very sharp Afghanistan analyst, says that since 2002, the number of different insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan has risen sharply, they are often mutually supporting and have formed a "complex adaptive system" of "sprawling multi-organizational networks." These networks include the Taliban and groups such as Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, drug traffickers, warlords and their militia and local tribes. This marks a stark contrast from pre-9-11 Afghanistan when the Taliban insurgency was hierarchically structured. Now, the Afghan insurgency in many ways resembles the diffuse Iraqi insurgency. The intricate transportation network established by drug and criminal groups connecting Afghanistan to Pakistan is now used by the Taliban and other insurgents.

Jones says more troops alone will not defeat the complex and adaptive insurgency now active in Afghanistan. Its emergence occurred largely because of the absence of government, particularly at the local level. Foreign aid has largely benefitted the "urban elite," causing intense resentment among the rural population. Weak administration and a lack of control in some provinces has allowed the Taliban and others to step into the void, taxing people and often providing security. Where resisted, they terrorize the people.

To stem the insurgency, Jones says the U.S. must focus on beefing up district-level institutions that are Afghan led and providing support to the local population; should shift from direct action attacks against the Taliban to building Afghan security forces where there is currently a 70 percent shortfall in police mentors and 30 percent shortfall for the army; remove and prosecute corrupt officials; and focus resources on fortifying Afghanistan’s porous borders.

Additional troops is a good first step. The military also needs to boost the number of trainers sent to Afghanistan and re-task some of those Army special forces units away from chasing insurgents to mentoring Afghan army battalions.

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