Obama’s Afghanistan Problem

December 2, 2008

Great article in the NY Times today by Michael Gordon on Afghanistan. It agrees with what I’ve been hearing almost unanimously about Afghanistan – while more troops are indeed necessary, they will only begin to solve the problem. An Iraq-style ‘surge’ will not be successful there. Instead, because of unique aspects of the conflict, it will have to be approached with new strategies, and it’s unclear what the Obama administration’s strategies there will be.

“Military experts agree that more troops are required to carry out an effective counterinsurgency campaign, but they also caution that the reinforcements are unlikely to lead to the sort of rapid turnaround that the so-called troop surge in Iraq produced after its start in 2007.

After seven years of war, Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.

‘Fifty percent of Afghans continue to live in villages of 300 persons or less, and 75 to 80 percent live in a rural environment,’ said J. Alexander Thier, an expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace, a government-financed research center. ‘The insurgency is rural-based.'”

Additionally, Afghanistan is a basket case right now. We’ve experienced greater violence against US assets there than in Iraq over the past several months, for the first time since the Iraqi invasion in 2003.

“American intelligence reports underscore the seriousness of the threat. From August through October, the average number of daily attacks by insurgents exceeded those in Iraq, the first time the violence in Afghanistan had outpaced the fighting in Iraq since the start of the American occupation in May 2003. Almost half of the insurgents’ attacks were directed against American and other foreign forces, while the remainder were focused on Afghan security forces and civilians.

‘Afghanistan may be the “good war,” but it is also the harder war,’ said David J. Kilcullen, a former officer in the Australian Army who recently left his job as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior adviser on counterinsurgency issues.”

And the prognosis is not good.

“But for all the difficulties the American military has confronted in Iraq, the conditions there were more conducive in some important ways to a successful surge than in Afghanistan.

‘Afghanistan is not Iraq,’ said Ali A. Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, who projects that it will take 10 years to establish stability in the country. ‘It is the theme park of problems.'”

Among those problems is the ability for insurgents to operate across the border from bases in Pakistan.

It will be interesting to see how an Obama/Gates Pentagon tackles these problems, and how different it will be from the Bush administration’s approach. We could be in Afghanistan for a long time, certainly all of Obama’s term of office. On the foreign policy front, it could end up defining his presidency.

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