Afghanistan Doesn’t Need a Surge

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121668659664272147.html

Afghanistan needs many things, but two more brigades of U.S. troops are not among them.

Barack Obama said: “We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there.” Mr. Obama should have supported the surge in Iraq, but that doesn’t mean that advocating one in Afghanistan makes sense.

Afghanistan’s problems are not the same as Iraq’s. Its people aren’t recovering from a brutal, all-controlling tyranny, but from decades of chaos and centuries of bad government. Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is largely illiterate and has a relatively undeveloped civil society. Afghan society still centers around the family and, for men, the mosque. Its society and traditions are still largely intact, in contrast to Iraq’s fractured, urbanized and half-modernized population.

The Afghan insurgency has no broad popular base and doesn’t mirror an obvious religious or ethnic fault line. It is also far more linked with Pakistani support than the Iraqi insurgency or militias were with Iran. Afghanistan needs a better president, judiciary and police force — and a Pakistani government that is not playing footsie with the Taliban.

In Afghanistan, the situation can differ radically in provinces just a half-hour helicopter ride away. There has been much recent hysteria about an incident on July 13 when nine American soldiers were killed in an insurgent assault on a combat outpost in Want, in Nuristan (mistakenly reported as taking place in Wanat in neighboring Kunar Province). This was the deadliest attack on American soldiers since 16 troops were killed in Kunar in 2005. It was a tragic event, but does not demonstrate that the American effort in Afghanistan is on the brink of disaster, as some commentators have risibly argued.

“RC-East has pushed up to new areas and the bad guys are pushing back there,” a serving U.S. government official who requested anonymity told me. Regional Command East has been applying a standard formula in 14 Afghan provinces, usually with great success. Even privates can tell you that it’s about living among the people, building projects for them, and, in the Pashtun belt, getting the tribes on your side. This won’t do the trick unless the governor and sub-governors are decent and respected by the tribal leaders, and the tribes themselves are cohesive.

“But there is no such thing as tribe in Nuristan,” the official continued. “There is no unit above the corporate community.” The last governor was fired, but it’s not clear how much even a brilliant, honest governor could do in a place so unaccustomed to authority above the village level.

Nuristanis — who were converted from paganism to Islam only about 100 years ago — live in isolated villages in terrain that is rugged even by Afghan standards. There are no paved roads in the province, and helicopters can be shot down from above in the narrow valleys, as two U.S. military helicopters were in the last year.

So how do we bring security to Nuristan? Is bringing in thousands of American troops the answer?

“No!” the official said. “It’s using Special Forces to get the bad guys who are infiltrating from Pakistan. Our enemy only attacks when they expect to win. If we have to go after them, we need the capacity to hunt them with stealth over trackless mountainsides for which our infantry, cavalry and airborne soldiers are not trained or equipped to operate.” Defeating the enemy is best accomplished by highly trained fighters who travel light.

Counterinsurgency is not one-size-fits-all. While there are best practices, they must be applied in a nuanced way. In poorly governed countries where insurgencies are likely to arise, the solution may vary from valley to valley.

It shouldn’t be hard to see that adding men, helicopters or projects is not always the solution. But then, a would-be commander in chief who announces his prescription for Afghanistan before setting foot there has a lot to learn about America’s top job.

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