New Afghan strategy takes lessons from Iraq
As the U.S. alters its approach to the war in Afghanistan, the strategy has been informed by lessons learned from the Iraq war.
The first lesson is agreed upon by all parties and challenges the notion that a "surge" similar to that used in Iraq would work in Afghanistan. "Every case is unique," is the mantra.
Officials such as Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command, note that the "general concepts" of counterinsurgency (protecting civilians, security forces living among the people) apply. But Afghanistan has a different terrain, degree of development and governmental traditions. It also lacks the basic services found in Iraq.
Reaching out to "reconcilable" fighters is one major lesson. Co-opting Sunni tribes in Iraq helped spur the remarkable security improvements in Anbar province, which spread as "the Awakening" to other parts of the country.
In Afghanistan, the challenge is to divide factions of the Taliban.
"We cannot just take the tactics, techniques and procedures that worked in Iraq and employ them in Afghanistan," Petraeus told Foreign Policy magazine. "The challenge in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to figure out how to reduce substantially the numbers of those who have to be killed or captured."
George Friedman of STRATFOR, a respected private intelligence and analysis firm, cited another lesson learned in Iraq: engaging neighbors.
For Iraq, that meant the Iranians, who were used to rein in Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shiite militants (though the Iranians continued to pursue their own interests in Iraq).
For Afghanistan, Pakistan must clearly be brought more into the fight.
Success in that effort, Friedman noted, will rely on convincing the Pakistanis it is in their self-interest to challenge the Taliban and possibly further weaken their own new central government.
Other analysts have pointed out that Baghdad offered a "center of gravity" on which to hinge a revamped strategy. There is no such thing in Afghanistan. Analysts have scoffed that Hamid Karzai is "president of Kabul, not Afghanistan."
It’s a reference to both Karzai’s weaknesses and the mountainous, decentralized nature of Afghanistan’s population and culture.
Another problem with importing the Awakening into Pakistan’s tribal areas is that the Taliban have targeted and killed hundreds of tribal leaders there. The Taliban have become part of the tribal networks, and are not viewed as outsiders, as were many insurgents in Iraq.
The Marine Corps’ own Counter-Insurgency Center asked officers for lessons from Iraq applicable to Afghanistan.
Among the responses was to "shift emphasis from top-down (strong central government) to bottom-up (locally provided security) to leverage tribal structure in Afghanistan."
Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said at a National Press Club panel, "Foreign powers cannot win counterinsurgency campaigns, but they can enable and empower host nation governments to do so, and one of the most important tools they have to accomplish this task is the use of combat advisers."
Steve Coll of The New Yorker, a longtime Washington Post reporter with expertise in Afghanistan and Pakistan, notes that the Afghan forces are far behind their Iraqi counterparts. Thus, some options had to be tempered.
In Afghanistan, Coll said in an interview for Frontline, "You have insurgency that is rooted in 20 or 30 years of continuous conflict, that takes succor from a sanctuary across the border in Pakistan, and that has a call upon rural populations and an ability to intimidate rural populations that is distinct."
"You’re going to have to relearn, from the ground up, in Afghanistan how to change security conditions there," he said.
Afghanistan by the numbers
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, the United States issued an ultimatum to the Taliban: turn over Osama bin Laden. The Taliban refused, and the U.S. military began a month-long bombing campaign on Oct. 7, 2001. The Taliban fled to south, and other militants escaped across the Pakistani border. A shift in U.S. attention to Iraq, along with other factors, leaves room for the Taliban to regroup.
Troop-contributing nations as of March 2009Number: 42Number of troops: About 62,000Top troop contributors: U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada and France
U.S. troop levels in AfghanistanSeptember 2008: 34,000January 2009: 37,000
Cause of death, U.S. troops from 2001 to March 8, 2009Bombs: 199Suicide bombs: 8Mortars/RPGs/rockets: 22Land mines: 11Helicopter losses: 100Aircraft losses: 22Other hostile fire: 169Nonhostile causes: 130Total: 661
Number of roadside bomb attacks2004: 3072005: 5082006: 1,2322007: 2,2582008: 3,276
Number of Afghan security forcesApril 2008: 137,710October 2008: 147,910
Afghan population as of July 2008Pashtun: 42 percentTajik: 27 percentHazara: 9 percentUzbek: 9 percentAimak: 4 percentTurkmen: 3 percentBaloch: 2 percentOther: 4 percentTotal: 32.7 million
Afghan civilian casualties resulting from combat between pro- and anti-government forces2006: 9292007: 1,6332008: 2,118
Afghan civilians killed in 2008Execution by insurgents: 13 percentSuicide, roadside bombs: 34 percentEscalation of force by pro-government forces: 2 percentAirstrikes by pro-government forces: 26 percentOther incidents: 25 percent
Sources: Brookings Institution, NATO