Troop Surge in Afghanistan: Reflections

The week’s big ‘War-on-Terror’ story was the announced surge of troops into Afghanistan.  Many on the left have expressed dismay at President Obama’s decision and Gordon Brown’s copy-cat intent to up the British presence. The typical anti-surge rhetoric is that more troops will result in more deaths among both allied forces and the local population, the increased violence will in turn feed more recruits to the Taliban/Al Qaeda making a bad situation worse and increasing the risk of a domestic attack.

Recent precedent shows it may not play out like that.  The flawed leap of logic by the protestors is that more troops must inevitably lead to more violence.  It is not inevitable.  More troops, when deployed correctly bring greater security by denying the insurgents the space to operate, reducing the number of easy targets and by convincing the local population that the insurgents can be beaten.  Get it right and violence decreases.   The challenge is ‘getting it right’. The surge cannot be just about a bigger number it has to go hand-in-hand with a clear plan of what to do with that number.

The obvious precedent for this is the 2007 General  Petraeus Iraqi troop surge.  All the same arguments against that deployment were cited.  We see now that the ‘Iraq surge’ was a success and a real catalyst to allied forces ability to eventually exit the country and the beginning of the decline in allied deaths.  If you don’t learn from history you are doomed to repeat it.  Hopefully then, many of the team from Patraeus era are now involved in Afghanistan applying the lessons there. One key lesson is that the extra troops must be visible.   Locals naturally hedge their bets and try not to piss off insurgents if they believe the insurgents may one day win.  This tacit support isn’t always due to any ideological alignment more often it is simply a survival strategy.  Create an environment where the insurgents look likely to be beaten and you will suddenly reach a tipping point of people feeling bold and helping government forces, this then accelerates the insurgent’s demise.

The real tragedy in only deciding on the surge now is the implicit wasted years we’ve endured. It should not have taken this long to understand the military commitment needed to win both the war and the ‘post-war’.  This was the lesson from Vietnam that America seems to have gone full circle by learning, forgetting and relearning.  Back in the late 80s, early 90s academic strategists used to talk of something called the ‘Powell Doctrine’ named after the then Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs Colin Powell.  I am grossly over-simplifying but the gist of the ‘Powell Doctrine’ was that if you want to put US troops in harms way then you only ever do so with totally overwhelming force.  Find out what your Pentagon strategists say you need to win the war and ‘post-war’ – then literally double that number.  If you don’t get the big number – don’t go.  This leaves no likelihood of anything other than a swift, decisive victory.  The downside is that using these maths mean you have to commit the size of force you once expected to put out against the Soviets against even a medium size Middle-Eastern nation. Obviously this brings horrendous cost.   The doctrine was put to good use and proven in the interventions in Panama and the Iraq/Kuwait situation.  However, the huge cost implications meant that many felt it didn’t afford America ‘agility’, and by its nature meant you always ended up with a sledge hammer to crack any nut. The sad irony was that the Powell Doctrine vanished whilst Powell himself was in the most influential role of his career.  The doctrine was effectively lost in the post-911 Rumsfeld Pentagon.  Rumsfeld’s obsession with doing more with less did not serve his country well.  It’s a false economy to try and save a penny if in the long run it costs you pounds.  And never mind the pounds if it has cost you lives.

We owe it to the people in the field that they have the right number of troops and equipment to ‘do the job’ and this week’s announcement help with that.  The next step (or arguably the step that should have come first) is a public broadside on exactly what ‘the job’ is and what success will look like – but I’ll save my rant on that for another day……….



Filed under Afghanistan, Politics

2 responses to “Troop Surge in Afghanistan: Reflections

  1. Kiwi Hooli

    OK. I get the idea that more troops increases the chance of winning – my issue is that even this extra 30,000 may not be enough. It wasn’t the full amount that the generals asked for. I like the quote in this that ‘if you don’t get the number – don’t go’. Change it to ‘if you don’t get the number – don’t stay.’ and you’re where I am at in my head.

  2. John D.

    Stupid, unwinnable war. Regardless of the numbers.
    Not worth the bones of a single Grenadier…

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