Escalation in Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
6 years ago

Both the size of the ISAF and the insurgency are growing in Afghanistan, but the the rates of growth are disparate.

Each year since 2002, the number of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan has grown. And each year, during the “fighting season” of spring and summer, the number of attacks by the Taliban has also increased, prompting commanders to conclude that still more troops are needed. This year is no exception. There are 66,000 foreign troops from 40 countries in Afghanistan, including 37,500 Americans; the force under NATO command has grown by 20,000 in 18 months. But Taliban attacks are up 40 percent in eastern provinces this year compared with 2007, and there has been another spike in coalition casualties. In May and June, more Western soldiers died in Afghanistan than in Iraq. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that “at least” three additional brigades, or about 10,500 more troops, are needed for combat operations and training of the Afghan army.

Will the escalation never end? The war in Afghanistan sometimes appears to suffer from a syndrome that also plagued the United States in Vietnam: incremental increases in troops that are never enough to turn the situation around. Had former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld deployed 60,000 troops in 2002 — rather than 5,000 — Afghanistan might have been pacified. Now it seems that a “surge” of troops, like that successfully applied to Iraq last year, might be needed to turn the tide of the war.

The problem is that large numbers of fresh troops are unavailable. The U.S. military currently lacks the reserves, and NATO nations can’t or won’t provide them. Germany, Britain and France have recently pledged more soldiers, but the numbers are relatively small.

There have been more U.S. and NATO troops killed in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq for the second straight month.  But more to the point, many of the NATO troops aren’t allowed in kinetic engagements, so deploying more German troops doesn’t help if their mission is unnecessary.  To comprehend the full force of the report, it should be realized that some troops are taking a disproportionate level of the burden (e.g., U.S. troops), and the Marines’ deployment to Afghanistan has been bloody.

For the Marine Corps this year Afghanistan has proven a deadly and treacherous place.

Whereas 18 months ago the service was absorbing dozens of casualties per month in attacks throughout the once-restive al Anbar province in Iraq, today the bloodletting is in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban insurgency and an undermanned, politically-constrained NATO force has lead to a sharp rise in leathernecks killed or wounded.

In June alone — when seasonal thaws lead to increased attacks from insurgent groups — the force of some 3,200 Marines there suffered 10 killed in action, including one Navy corpsman. By comparison, of the 23,000 Marines in Iraq, six were killed in June.

So far this year 13 Marines have been killed in combat in Afghanistan while 17 have been killed in Iraq. 

And for the Marine battalion commander in Afghanistan who lost nine of those killed in action in June, the deaths are hitting his unit hard.

Note again that the Marine Corps had in Afghanistan 167% of the casualties it took in Iraq, with roughly seven times as many Marines deployed in Iraq.  This is a remarkable statistic, and states clearer than any other argument where the “tip of the spear” should be deployed.

There is action on the political front with Pakistan, who is apparently getting edgy with their territorial rights (seasoned with a big dose of fear of the Tehrik-i-Taliban).

When Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani meets President George W. Bush at the White House on June 28, he will tell the US leader that Islamabad will tolerate a US incursion into Fata if it is directed specifically against Al Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri – but nobody else, says a report published on Friday.

Quoting senior US and Pakistani officials, the Time magazine reported that the prime minister, however, would also tell Mr Bush that Pakistan would not allow incursions into its territory for any other Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders.

“If they do a raid and they find No. 3 or No. 4 or No. 5 but don’t get Bin Laden, it’s going to be a realproblem,” said the report, quoting a senior Pakistani official.

Ahead of the events again, The Captain’s Journal had previously said that Afghanistan would remain the focal point for kinetic operations against the Taliban, and that Pakistan could not be counted as allies in the fight.  This remains true despite arguments to the contrary.  “Expert” Jeremy Shapiro (Brookings Institution, RAND, Georgetown) stated to Spiegel that there is no need for additional troops.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Policy-makers in the US and Europe are shocked by the gloomy Pentagon assessment for Afghanistan. You, however, are pleading for more optimism. Why?

Shapiro: There is ample reason for gloom, but we need to keep in mind that in the best of circumstances, Afghanistan is a long-term mission. We are talking about a commitment of 10 or 20 years. I believe we have fundamentally the right strategy in place, but even if that is so it will take some time to show progress. I don’t believe we need the major review people are talking about.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Everyone seems to be asking for more troops in Afghanistan, though. President George W. Bush, John McCain, even Barack Obama.

Shapiro: More soldiers could be put to good use there, but they wouldn’t fundamentally change the situation. Let’s assume we would send in 10,000 more, as is contemplated: They could improve the local situation in a few areas for a time, but they would not rectify the problem of the Pakistani border areas and their ability to infiltrate insurgents into Afghanistan. As long as we don’t solve that problem, you could put 100,000 soldiers into Afghanistan and you would still have asymmetric attacks in various parts of Afghanistan and a rate of civilian and military casualties similar to the current one. And I have not yet heard viable suggestions on how to deal with the problem of the Pakistani border areas.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn’t it understandable that security is paramount to people in Afghanistan?

Shapiro: Of course, but we can’t solve that problem simply by increasing forces. Achieving overall security in Afghanistan will be a slow process and unfortunately we will have to tolerate violence in the country for a long time.

Some expert.  So that there is no confusion, The Captain’s Journal unequivocally states that the argument above is idiotic.  The population will not “tolerate violence in the country for a long time,” and this is ridiculous counterinsurgency policy.  Additionally, it is immoral and counterproductive.  NATO (and the U.S.) will not be welcome for a “long time” if we continue to tolerate violence.  Shapiro doesn’t understand the ebb and flow of counterinsurgency campaigns.  Also, recognizing that the nature of insurgencies is to engage in asymmetric warfare is correct and has absolutely no relevance to the argument concerning force size.  Shapiro should stay on point.

Again, Syria has been a problem with respect to infiltration of foreign fighters into Iraq, but the surge and security plan (along with other events such as the Anbar awakening) has slowed the river of fighters to a trickle.  While harder and more costly, it is possible to fight a transnational insurgency in a local battlespace, as long as global pressure is brought to bear.

Pakistan is a thorny problem, and obviously their pact with the Taliban cannot be honored by the U.S.  But Pakistan’s recalcitrance is no argument for under-resourcing the campaign in Afghanistan.  Recall the words of one Taliban commander: “If NATO remains strong in Afghanistan, it will put pressure on Pakistan. If NATO remains weaker in Afghanistan, it will dare [encourage] Pakistan to support the Taliban.”

We’ll take the admonition of the Taliban over the pontification of Jeremy Shapiro.  More troops will indeed “fundamentally change the situation.”  Similar to other RAND studies (which advocate a very small footprint for COIN), Shapiro behaves as if the last two years in Iraq never occurred and the gains never happened.  The quickest gains in Iraq were at the hands of the U.S. Marines (the experience on which, at least in part, the security plan in Baghdad was based).  They now stand ready to be at the tip of the spear in Afghanistan.

  • Brian H

    Relocate the Marines to A-Stan. All of them.


You are currently reading "Escalation in Afghanistan", entry #1183 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Featured,Marine Corps and was published July 6th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

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