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A Surge of Will in Afghanistan

Author: Greg Bruno
September 30, 2008

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After seven years of trying to stabilize Afghanistan, the Bush administration is redoubling efforts to tame the Taliban and secure peace. Rising military casualties (iCasualities.org) and security incidents (see below) have Pentagon planners considering an Iraq-like surge of U.S. troops to restore order; a series of strategy reviews (AFPS) have also been proposed to turn the war around. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen told lawmakers on September 10 changes were overdue. "I am not convinced that we're winning it in Afghanistan," Mullen said. "I'm convinced we can" (McClatchy).

More boots on the ground could help restore order, at least temporarily. Violence in Afghanistan is fueled by opium trafficking, corruption, and criminal gangs. But whether more troops will be enough to end the war and win over an increasingly frustrated Afghan public is far from certain. As the Washington Post reports, kidnappings, robberies, and drug-related crimes are eroding confidence in the government of President Hamid Karzai; some Afghans even long for the days of relative stability and control under the Taliban. A new survey illustrates this point: Most Afghans say anger over a shortage of basic needs is fueling the uptick in violence. "It is worrisome and of great concern to see that the Afghan people are starting to lose hope" (Quqnoos.com), says Lex Kassenberg, country director of CARE International in Afghanistan.

Security Incidents GraphWashington and its Western allies acknowledge troops alone will not pacify Afghanistan. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called for a "political surge" of international aid. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates—who said during a Congressional testimony that up to three additional combat brigades (AP) could be available for deployment by spring 2009—has stressed more money is needed for non-military programs. In its June 2008 report to Congress, the Pentagon conceded success in Afghanistan "will never be achieved through military means alone." Peter Dahl Thruelsen, a research fellow at the Royal Danish Defense College's Institute for Strategy, says a "comprehensive approach" is especially vital to British success in southern Helmand Province, where insurgents continue to sow instability (PDF). Corrupt Afghan police, a weak central government, and Taliban influence (Times-UK) hinder development in the province.

One of the toughest issues for military planners, though, is neighboring Pakistan. Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgents are staging attacks from safe havens inside Pakistan, even as Islamabad vows to restore order to the lawless northwest tribal areas. A new report by the independent, U.S.-based Pakistan Policy Working Group calls Pakistan vital to the success of the Afghan war, cautioning that "U.S. interests in Pakistan are more threatened now than at any time since the Taliban was driven from Afghanistan in 2001." Owais Ghani, who heads Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, says militant commanders must be negotiated with (Telegraph) before peace is possible. Pakistan's approach to dealing with tribal militants is in flux (BBC). Military leaders have appointed Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha to head the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, long accused of collaborating with militants. Pasha's previous job was directing military operations against militants along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

In the end, boots and guns alone will not end the Afghan morass. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband says "the key variable (to victory) is building up the Afghan National Army"—not necessarily adding more troops. David Ignatius of the Washington Post says the enemy in Afghanistan is too fuzzy for conventional forces to fight successfully. Author and Afghan analyst Rory Stewart, meanwhile, says increasing troop numbers will only "inflame Afghan nationalism." Instead, Stewart says, the West should simply get out of the way (TIME).

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