Examining Obama’s Afghan Plan, Part II: A ‘Surge’ in Soldiers and Civilians

by Jeff Emanuel on April 6, 2009


Author’s note: This is the second installment in a seven-part series analyzing the Obama administration’s strategy for the Afghan front in the War on Terror. The administration’s white paper can be seen here, and part one of this series, “Examining Obama’s Afghan Plan: Introduction,” can be seen here.

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S IMPENDING ‘SURGE’ in the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan has been public knowledge for some time now. In fact, the roots of the plan can actually be found in the Bush administration, whose final days saw a greater emphasis placed on that eastern front in the War on Terror than had been since late 2002. The initial thought, as publicly announced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates last November, was to send approximately 30,000 additional troops to augment the 33,000 already operating in the expansive, mountainous country.

Shortly after taking office, Obama ordered that number cut nearly in half, to 17,000. Those troops – a combined force of soldiers and Marines – will be assigned to areas of the county along the border with Pakistan, where the coalition has the least control and terrorist forces are at their strongest, and will be tasked with “preventing a return of al Qadea and its allies” to the area and with providing space and security for the national government to expand its hegemony into this largely warlord- and Taliban-controlled region of Afghanistan.

In addition to this 17,000-troop counterinsurgency force, Obama has assigned 7,000 more troops to Afghanistan to perform other critically important tasks. In February, the just over 3,000 soldiers that make up the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT) deployed to two Afghan provinces near Kabul, where they are operating out of coalition outposts in an effort to tamp down the insurgency-riddled east-central portion of the country. An additional 4,000 soldiers are now awaiting deployment to the region to serve as embedded Afghan Security Force Training Teams.

There is no question that the coalition forces currently in Afghanistan, who are fewer than 30% in number than their counterparts assigned to Iraq, are in need of reinforcement. In fact, given that Afghanistan’s surface area is 120% that of Iraq, with exponentially more difficult terrain, a 24,000-troop ‘surge’ is likely far too small to make any measurable difference in that country’s day-to-day development and security, even if they are employed correctly.

Further, the specialists being recruited for deployment to Afghanistan as part of Obama’s so-called ‘civilian surge’ – currently estimated at about 400 – are also likely far too small in number to accomplish what will be expected of them. If properly employed, this small number of specialists, who bring expertise in agriculture, law, and other areas to a region desperately in need of their assistance, could do a great deal of good in the few areas they can influence. However, like the so-called ‘surge’ troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, these specialists will need to be pushed out of the national and regional levels and into the expansive state’s agrarian, tribal localities in order to be effective – something career bureaucrats and government employees are notorious for their reluctance to do (for evidence of this, witness the revolt by bureaucrats within the State Department when faced with the mere prospect of deployment to Iraq’s secure International Zone in 2007).

FAR MORE IMPORTANT to bringing about positive change within Afghanistan than the size of any troop increase is a shift in focus and tactics by those forces within the country itself. The core additional force of 17,000 soldiers and Marines will be placed where help is needed most (the largely terrorist-controlled provinces of Helmand and Kandahar) and will be presented the unenviable task of battling to wrest control of the area from largely entrenched enemy fighters and to forcibly shift the form of subsistence practiced there from opium poppy production to wheat cultivation (ostensibly with the assistance of some of those civilian agriculture specialists) . However, that is only one part of a necessary overall shift in Afghan strategy – something which the Obama administration, with its use of “counterinsurgency” as a largely meaningless buzzword in its strategic literature, has shown little sign of embracing, or of even recognizing the necessity of.

In fact, given his public statements about the positive shifts in another front in the War on Terror – Iraq – it appears the new president has joined a large portion of the American populace in falling prey to the idea that the early 2007 ‘surge’ in American troops deployed to that country was the bromide that squelched the terrorist resistance there and gave the Iraqi people the time, the resources, and the will to pull their ailing country together. This meme was pushed by a mainstream media which sold the comprehensive strategic overhaul brought to the table by General David Petraeus and okayed by then-President Bush as being nothing more than a shipping-out of a few thousand more soldiers – an absurdly simplistic description of the massive changes made in order to provide the Iraqi people with both the security and the incentive to make the giant strides they have in the last two years.

Unfortunately, many conservative commentators fell into this trap as well, adding to the overall perception by referring to the implementation of a brilliantly-executed counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) simply as ‘The Surge’ – something which, despite those commentators’ desire to aid, rather than play down, the heroic war and rebuilding effort, did little to disabuse the simplistic public belief that little actually changed on the ground in Iraq other than the uniformed U.S. headcount.

If his senior military commanders, along with the mercurial Gates, cannot disabuse the new president of this notion and convince him to okay a full-on strategic review and overhaul of the Afghan order of battle, Obama’s ‘surge’ will be the antithesis of his predecessor’s, achieving few if any strategic or tactical gains and instead sending 20,000 more American GIs to serve as cannon fodder in mis- (or un-)directed pursuit of a nebulous goal.

If Obama’s ‘surge’ ends up being less than an overwhelming success, even if it is due to a failure to implement a new, winning strategy for those troops to deploy in support of, it is likely that the calls for a mass withdrawal from the war-torn area and the key front in the War on Terror will escalate. Part of the stated rationale for this renewed call for surrender will be the claim that we tried “exactly what worked in Iraq,” and because of the fact that it didn’t work, the war in Afghanistan must be “unwinnable.” Unfortunately, the fact that this claim will be about as far from the truth as possible will likely be lost in translation and ignored in future administration messaging.

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