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Surge Hawks' Frustration Mounts

It was a sullen and disgruntled panel that talked Afghanistan at the American Enterprise Institute last night. The conservative think tank has nowhere near the same influence with the Obama crowd as they did when Bush was in office and their calls for a massive Afghan “surge” have, so far, appeared to fall on deaf ears.

AEI’s Fred Kagan said emphatically that we are losing the war in Afghanistan. The Taliban are sweeping across the country. Any delay in a troop surge means we will lose much faster. Fellow hawk Tom Donnelly said an additional 40,000 troops, the figure that is routinely bandied about as the number of troops ISAF commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants, is no longer sufficient to stave off defeat. He called for a surge of eight to 10 brigades to Afghanistan, which gets close to 60,000 troops.

Providing a more measured analysis was Council on Foreign Relations’ fellow Stephen Biddle. He supports McChrystal’s “integrated-counterinsurgency” strategy as the best hope to prevent Afghanistan descending once again into a “grand mal” civil war. Biddle emphasized that McChrystal’s prescription is a “high-cost” way to go; problem is there aren’t many other options with much chance of success.

McChrystal’s report made clear that the situation in Afghanistan is “serious” and that “many indicators suggest the overall situation is deteriorating.” A couple of important points should be kept in mind. McChrystal’s review was conducted in the spring and early summer. At that time, there were 36,000 American troops in Afghanistan. By the end of the year the number will be 68,000.

In 2006, the year things truly began to go south in Afghanistan and the insurgency made substantial inroads, there were just 20,000 American and 12,000 foreign troops there. That number increased to just 30,000 during 2008. American troop numbers have doubled in just the past 8 months. Those additional troops, along with more helicopters and more reconnaissance assets, have barely had time to make their presence felt, but it will not be immediate.

It’s helpful to look at some of the ISAF data on security incidents provided to CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman. It shows that insurgent attacks are overwhelmingly concentrated in the south and east; attacks in the north and west barely register.

There are, on average, four attacks per day in Kandahar province, the Pashtun heartland; there are on average no attacks per day in the heavily Tajik Panjshir and Ghor provinces. Similarly, in Bamyan province, home to the Pashtun-hating Hazaras, there are no attacks per day, on average. (Remember that when the Taliban took power in the 1990s, they massacred large numbers of the Hazara).

The ISAF data indicates two important points that must be kept in mind in any assessment of the insurgency in Afghanistan. First, it is extremely concentrated; 70 percent of all attacks occur in just 10 districts. Second, the insurgency is, as most learned observers acknowledge, a Pashtun insurgency. The Taliban have generally not been able to make gains in non-Pashtun provinces or districts. There may be a self-limiting aspect to the Taliban insurgency in that they are rejected outside their own turf.

Also, a point to keep in mind when discussing any surge of tens of thousands of American troops to Afghanistan: the logistical challenges of getting troops and equipment there and keeping them supplied are enormous. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Kuwait to the war effort in Iraq. Combat brigades were able, with all of their heavy equipment, offload in from ships in Kuwait and then motor along major highways - as in U.S. quality interstates - that ran due north to Baghdad.

There is no massive staging ground next door to Afghanistan. There is no “Red Ball Express” like the one that operated in Iraq; it is an entirely different ball game logistically speaking. This story from McClatchy has some good descriptions of the challenges facing ground convoys supplying troops in Afghanistan.

To provide security to the Afghan people and push the insurgents away from the population (check out Bing West’s recent video reports over at the Small Wars Journal site showing troops trying to do just that) will require more American troops. But counterinsurgency is a marathon not a sprint and it will take time to reverse the momentum insurgents have gained over the past five years.

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