Nur al-Cubicle

A blog on the current crises in the Middle East and news accounts unpublished by the US press. Daily timeline of events in Iraq as collected from stories and dispatches in the French and Italian media: Le Monde (Paris), Il Corriere della Sera (Milan), La Repubblica (Rome), L'Orient-Le Jour (Beirut) and occasionally from El Mundo (Madrid).

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Winning militarily in Afghanistan

Five French experts weigh in on the options available to the US in Afghanistan

Source is here.

Olivier Guillard
Information Director, Crisis Consulting

A courageous gamble if accompanied by investment in infrastructure

The debate on the advisability of the surge. Given the current conditions on the ground -a state of fragile equilibrium between critical and irreparable- is a surge the most effective means to prevent the Taliban from returning to Kabul? In the United States, the opinion is far from unanimous. Conservatives and democrats, bureaucrats and military men, public opinion and the media and the President and Vice President provide as many thoughts and utterances on this questions as is possible to devise. NATO countries are completely flummoxed. Last, the Afghans themselves are much divided on the surge; they think they have more to fear the surge than any gain it might bring.

Is a surge needed? Of course a surge is needed! But what kind of surge? Once the next Afghan leader is elected, what shape will President Obama give to the surge? 10,000, 20,000, 40,000 troops? More? Should we have the same expectations whether the troop numbers are high or low? Should we ascribe it the same chances for success and the same attributes?

The surge as a tool for stabilizing theater of operations. If the surge sees the light of day, don’t expect it to move mountains or work miracles, win the war and deliver the peace, or bring about an immediate religious concordat and national unity. Whatever the configuration, this commitment can only –and given current circumstances, this would be quite a bit- stabilize the military situation and place the conflict in a welcome state of stasis, a situation that far from ideal but much preferable to abandonment and defeat.

The surge has it limits: an impossible model to replicate. It would be unrealistic and dangerous to regard the previous “victorious” surge as a panacea to all the political-ethnic-military crises roiling the globe or even as a solution to the ills of Afghanistan. Per force the outcome of the surge in Iraq cannot be duplicated in the Afghanistan quagmire. There is too much dissimilarity between Baghdad and Kabul. The Iraqi militias have little to do with the Taliban obscurantists, just to cite one aspect.

A short-term surge and a long-term effort. Last, the advisability of the surge, despite its limits, merits support but not with an immediate perspective. This deployment of troops as a last attempt before throwing in the towel can avoid an unacceptable slide into defeat and chaos that would result in Afghanistan and beyond. But rather than a desperate and futile plunge of a sword into water, such a courageous gamble must be accompanied by a copious, long-term effort. Investment in infrastructures and human capital (education healthcare, jobs and training) and pressure on meddlesome capitals (Islamabad, Tehran), just for starters. To have the slightest chance for success, the rationale cannot be framed in terms of years. Decades will be required It's up to our leaders to make a tricky political and electoral gamble, starting with President Obama.


Andre Thiéblemont
French Army Colonel and Ethnologist

The question of additional troops obscures real issue

The question of additional troops for the Afghan theater of operations is indicative of the degree to which Westerns politicians and military men are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the character and the scale of the insurgency, which is what General McChrystal, ISAF Commander, admits in a report made public only recently. It’s a strange kind of blindness and it includes the French. Since 2006, voices in the civilian and military sphere have been pointing out the increasing power of the guerrillas, who have appropriated the banner of Pashtun nationalism and exploited popular resentment of the occupiers and the Kabul government. The insurgency is underpinned by several factors: political, cultural, social and economic, especially when you consider that the drug trade, which has spread like wildfire across what's left of small farming ravaged by forty years of war.

The Taliban movement has merged with a peasant resistance movement mobilized by feudal lords via traditional social and political relationships. These warlords, who maintain shifting alliances as they chase after lucre, have only exploited the security and political vacuum.

The strategy and scale of the insurgency have changed. Because of this the question of additional troops obscures the real issue. The political goals, as well as the ways and means of the continuing Western presence, must be questioned. Whatever the ends, the maintenance and reinforcement of this presence entails the rollout of colonialism -a revamped version of The White Man’s Burden operating under the banner of the UN. If the goal is to rebuild the Afghan State, you can either paste from Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey [Colonial Resident General of Morocco] or Joseph Simon Gallieni [Colonial Governor of Madagascar] or turn to pop psychology (winning hearts and minds). Rebuilding the Afghan State has three preconditions nested like a Russian doll and raises three issues. The first is the legitimacy of the central Afghan government.

But how can you build this legitimacy when the “Karzai System” itself is a problem and is feeding the rebellion? How do you confirm this legitimacy without alternatives for the economy, which relies on poppy growing and undermines the state as it promotes the autonomy of local potentates?

How do you get legitimacy to take root among people who have no local political or government institutions that would provide continuity and the link to the community and respect for local customs. This was attempted in the form of Sections Administratives Spécialisées during the Algerian War or the Department of Indigenous Affairs in French Morocco.

Such questions should worry political and strategic thinkers. Yet everything is transpiring as if such questions meant nothing -as if the political dimension of the Afghan problem were intractable. These thinkers are not asking the right questions.


Bruno Tertrais, Senior Researcher
The Foundation for Strategic Studies
Author, The Nuclear Black Market

Shifting military action from counter-terrorism military to counter-insurgency

Sending additional troops to Afghanistan may by an ingredient for success, but it is not the only element. It’s redundant to state once again that the solution in Afghanistan is not a military one. Everyone is aware of that. The question is how to optimize the considerable effort made by the international community these in eight years.

Speaking of “victory” or defeat” makes no sense unless in there are objectives. First, we all have to agree on the objectives, which do not include turning Afghanistan into Switzerland. We have to ensure that the country does not become a sanctuary for terrorist networks plotting to attack our interests. We have to make sure that the country does not once again become a dictatorial regime that imposes medieval way of life on the population, forbidding girls from getting an education and anything that is not banned through the narrowest lens of interpreting the Koran. In other words: first, our interests and then our ideals. You have to establish priorities, preferably in this order. I’m not trying to be cynical, just realistic. The international community has neither the will nor the resources to reverse these priorities.

For this, we need, as they say, to win hearts and minds. But there are several obstacles in the way of this strategy: the deterioration in country’s security, collateral damage caused by air strikes, massive corruption and the destabilization of the society caused by the presence of foreigners (including NGOs).
The result: more and more Afghanis sympathize with the Taliban. This is happening not out of ideology or religion but out of national pride and the will to survive.

Would sending a new massive contingent of troops change the situation? Only if accompanied by intelligent strategy: co-opting local groups into the fight against the extremists (as was done in Iraq), limiting air strikes to the strict minimum (it is better to forgo killing a Taliban leader than to enrage an entire region), lift the restrictions that handcuff some foreign contingents (such as the Germans) and give the Afghanis everyday security. Military action must be shifted from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency.

In the medium and long terms, success does lie with building the army and police. A modern army cannot be created in the space of a few years. But down the road, there is a chance that the effort begun in 2002 may deliver enough successes to allow a partial military drawdown. However, this cannot occur without difficulties or reversals. The contributing nations must be willing to take risks.


Gilles Dorronsoro, Area Specialist, Turkey and Afghanistan
Professor of Political Science at the Sorbonne
Research Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

It’s the strategy, not the troop levels, that is in need of review

If the current strategy is pursued, reinforcements will not win against the insurrection but will cause political damage that will be difficult to justify to an increasingly squeamish public. At the current pace, Coalition losses will be 500 for 2009, representing a 60% over 2008.

The current strategy is causing more losses because it requires the long-term presence of foreign troops in rural areas, where the insurgency is the strongest. Patrols are vulnerable to IEDs and ambushes. This strategy was used in Helmand with catastrophic results: 130 dead since the beginning of the year and on achievement toward long-term security. McChrystal merely suggests doing the same thing in other southern and eastern provinces with more troops,

This strategy is ineffective for three reasons. First, Western troops are not trained for counter-insurgency. It’s a myth to represent Iraq as a victory for this type of strategy since it was the Sunni tribes who –at least for now- eliminated the most radical groups. There is no equivalent of these tribes in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is far more capable in controlling the Pashtun population. Soliders who carry a 90-lb load and are very slow in moving because of IEDs, who do not speak the language and who are deployed to Afghanistan for short periods of time have no chance of being accepted in a Pashtun village, where an armed stranger is seen as a threat.

Next, there is no Afghani support, no police to identify who is working for the insurgency, which is a big problem in securing a village. Western troops are working blindfolded and technology is of little use in such an environment. The weakness of the Afghan military condemns Western troop to staying 5 to 10 more years, just to patrol the villages. With this in mind, projections that the Afghan army will be 250,000 men strong in just a few years are unrealistic. At most, 150,000 men will be trained by 2014.

Last, there is no chance of sealing off the frontier with Pakistan. Operations underway by the Pakistani army are focused on Pakistani groups, not the Afghan Taliban. So the Taliban enjoy a sanctuary that allows them to strike Western troops at will.

More than the question of troop levels, the strategy is in need of review.

In the South and the East, where the insurgency is strong, the Coalition must concentrate on protecting towns and strategic infrastructure. One of the flaws in the current strategy is precisely the excessive focus on the South and East, giving the Taliban a free hand in the north.


Gerard Chaliand, Geostrategist
Author, the New Art of War

A fleeting sense of improvement

The report published by General Stanley McCrystal on Afghanistan has the merit of providing a reliable summary of the political and military errors since Kabul was surrounded in fall of 2001.

The counterinsurgency strategy that the general offers is coherent but comes too late in a deteriorated environment –both in Afghanistan and in the United States, roiled by crisis and where American public is in no mood for escalation.

President Obama, who during his electoral campaign underscored Afghanistan as a “war of necessity”, has inherited a very bad situation that requires, if he wishes to be reelected, taking the initiative. The strategy options, including a few that will not produce a victory, are of prime political importance. In and of itself, an increase in the number of troops and a counter-insurrection strategy that will require taking over all Pashtun areas to “safeguard the population” affords only a fleeting illusion of improvement.

The heart of the problem is governance. It is a waste of time to build a big Afghan army that, once the foreigners have decamped, will not go to war to defend a corrupt, inefficient and unpopular regime.

It is a necessity to carefully select the provinces where an effort will be deployed: Kandahar, Helmand, Paktia and Paktia, Wardak, etc. (the east of the country is populous, not the south). The north of Afghanistan, which is seldom mentioned but where at least half the population lives and where, apart from a few places like Kunduz, the Taliban, who are Pashtun, have never established a stronghold, should receive more aid for the rural areas. Last, financial assistance must be better monitored to avoid kickbacks and bribes, not to mention overpaid foreign experts (who, on the pretext of danger to their persons, never leave Kabul’s Green Zone.)

Whatever the strategy adopted, it will take time as well as losses in the ranks of the Western troops. It is shocking that an organization like NATO, representing 900 million people, is on the ropes after losing 1,350 men in eight years. The new social aspect of the strategy will pose a raft of new problems. For its part, the United States has lost less than 5,000 professional soldiers. The goal is to prevent the reconstitution of a sanctuary for Jihadists. But such a sanctuary exists in Pakistan, with Tehrick-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TPP), which remains, more than ever, at the epicenter of the conflict.

An honorable pullout for the United States and its allies is going to require time – and this factor does not play in its favor.


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