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Afghanistan is a very different war
Posted by: McQ on Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One of the more serious mistakes one can make when considering the war in Afghanistan is to think it is just like the war in Iraq and can be prosecuted the same way.

That's not to say more troops wouldn't help the situation. They would. That's not where the two wars are different. Nor are some of the counter-insurgency goals, such as protection of the population, not common goals between the two conflicts.

It has to do more with the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan and the characteristics of that country vs. Iraq. Here's a good start at listing those differences:
Iraq's insurgency is based in Iraq; Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents are based mainly across the border in Pakistan. Iraq is urban, educated, and has great wealth, at least potentially, in its oil supplies; Afghanistan is rural, largely illiterate, and ranks as one of the world's five poorest countries. Iraq has some history as a cohesive nation (albeit as the result of a minority ruling sect oppressing the majority); Afghanistan never has and, given its geography, perhaps never will.

Moreover, the Taliban's insurgency is ideological, not ethno-sectarian (except incidentally). Therefore, while some warlords and tribes have allied themselves with the Taliban for opportunistic or nationalistic reasons, and therefore might be peeled away and co-opted, the conditions are not ripe for some sort of Taliban or Pashtun "Awakening." Nor is there any place where walls might isolate the insurgents.
Those differences require a completely different approach to the prosecution of the war. A "surge" per se, isn't going to have the impact in Afghanistan that it had in Iraq.

So a modified counter-insurgency plan (which addresses the realities of Afghanistan) is going to have to be part of it, but it will also require a much more conventional approach as well. More troops is a certainty if we hope to be able to stop the flow of Taliban fighters into the country. One of the things, however, I hope we don't do is "fort up" and play defense. We have to take the war to the Taliban.

Which brings us to two more unique problems which make this war different than Iraq. The Taliban have taken refuge in Pakistan (who, according to reports, may be more than covertly helping them) and launch many of their operations out of there. This obviously means we have to address this problem on many fronts. Militarily we have to develop the intel necessary to identify and address these Taliban operations as they unfold and the flexibility and combat power to defeat them before they can fully develop.

The problem there, obviously, is many times the best opportunity to do that will be found while they're on the other side of the border. That means a strong diplomatic effort must be made to solicit and cement Pakistani cooperation in this sort of an endeavor. And frankly, my guess is the best way to accomplish that may be bribery, er, foreign aid. We need and must find a way to obtain the permission of Pakistan (and, even better, their cooperation) to hit the Taliban where we find them massing.

Or said another way, as important (and in many ways "impotent") as the diplomatic effort was inside and outside of Iraq, it is probably 10 times more important in Afghanistan. The State Dept. is going to have to really step up in this conflict and do a much better job than it did in Iraq.

There's another very different aspect to this war vs. Iraq.


One of the principles of war is unity of command. To say that unity of command is a positive aspect of NATO involvement is to exaggerate rather badly. NATO nations, with the exception of the UK, Australia and Canada, are not supporting the combat effort in Afghanistan. They're essentially picking and choosing the role they'll play in Afghanistan while leaving the combat to the usual suspects (the Anglo-US alliance).

So while it is a good thing that Gen. Petraeus is taking over Central Command - which has the overall responsibility for the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan - his command only has direct control over the US effort. There is a separate NATO command that is also functioning there. How well that headquarters and Central Command can function together is one of the keys to a successful prosecution of this war. And, of course, that applies to the myriad of other NATO countries involved in the endeavor.

Last, but not least, this is a very long war we're facing. We've been at it about 7 years. We're most likely looking at 10 more years at a minimum. Part of that is because of the way the effort is structured. Part of that is because of the cross-border aspect of the problem. And part of it is the fact that the military and governmental "infrastructure" (logistics, NCO corps, expansion of the military and training, government services, etc.) must be created from scratch.

The obvious point concerning the probable length of the war is whether or not the US will be willing to stick it out. Part of that will also be driven by how long NATO is willing to stay.

Anyway, right now, the situation is being characterized as "grim".
Last week, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress "we're running out of time" in Afghanistan. "I'm not convinced we're winning it in Afghanistan," Adm. Mullen testified.
Something is going to have to change in the prosecution of the war in Afghanistan and it is going to have to change fairly quickly. The winter will give us some breathing space to review the effort and hopefully make some necessary changes to more successfully prosecute this war on all levels. Success will depend on properly adapting, both diplomatically and militarily, to the unique problems of this particular war.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

McQ - don’t trouble the left with the minor detail that Afghanistan has for ages been the back breaker of many a respected army.

To the left all that matters is that we ’diverted’ to make something out of Iraq just because ’George Bush was getting back at Saddam for tryin to assassinate his daddy’.
Written By: looker
URL: http://
The good news is that Barack Obama supports the Afghan War.

OK .. you can stop laughing now.

I give a President Barack Obama two years before he turns tail and runs.
Written By: Neo
URL: http://
Not only is Afghanistan mostly rural, poorer, and uneducated, it’s larger both in territory and population than Iraq with even wilder country. It’s not a good candidate for the sort of counter-insurgency we’ve been conducting in Iraq. Current counter-insurgency doctrine says we’d need a force of nearly a half million to do the job.
Written By: Dave Schuler
OK, so what do we do?

The bit about an "outside" insurgency reminds me of the situation in Vietnam where the NVA sponsored / supported the VC from sanctuaries in Cambodia, Laos, and N. Vietnam (and effectively became the insurgency after Tet decimated the ranks of the VC). Is this what we face? If so, can we use the sort of strategy pursued by Abrams / Bunker / Colby, which was (as I understand it) to destroy the terrorist infrastructure and effectively starve them out of existence?

There must be a solution. We can’t afford a loss in A-stan any more than we could afford a loss in Iraq.
Written By: docjim505
URL: http://
Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and an expert on Afghanistan who recently spent 7 weeks there, makes the following point in an interview with Dan Ephron.
I believe the problem in Afghanistan isn’t necessarily a quantitative manpower problem but rather a manpower distribution problem. We have between 60,000 and 70,000 international troops in Afghanistan presently and the vast majority of these spend their time in the FOBs [forward operating bases].


When I was in Solerno last year, which is a FOB near the Pakistani-Afghan border near Khost, I estimated—and nobody really argued with me—that while there were thousands of people at this base, probably less than 5 percent ever left the wire. And you just can’t prosecute a counterinsurgency with those kinds of numbers.
Based on this post, I believe McQ would agree with him.

Newsweek: Winning in Afghanistan
Written By: Marlin
URL: http://
Dave Schuler: We mostly agree, although I’m not yet sold on the idea that we need a half million to properly do the job there (I sort of talk about that below).

OK, so what do we do?
We have to understand that unlike Iraq we’re really fighting an external insurgency in Afghanistan, not an internal one like Iraq. That means you approach this as more of a counter-guerrilla action than fighting a straight insurgency (which is primarly located in urban areas and fueled, in the case of Iraq, by sectarian concerns). A counter-guerrilla strategy isn’t that markedly different than a counter-insurgency regime, but it requires the force, at a minimum, to:

1. Gather Intelligence.
2. Protect the population and infra-structure.
3. Win ’hearts and minds’ to create a population unsympathetic to the external insurgency.
4. Deny the enemy supplies and the ability to move freely.
5. Direct action against reliably identified and located enemies.
6. Do not neglect the non-military aspects of the conflict.

Our problem right now is because of the cross-border basing of the enemy, we can’t do 4 and 5. That hinders our ability to do 2,3 and 6, and to some extent, 1.

The Taliban has a simple goal - survive long enough to outlast the US and NATO. If it can do that and we’ve been unsuccessful in putting a viable government, military and police force together they’ll eventually win (after we leave).

So the part about finding a way to work with Pakistan is critical to success in this war. Much more critical than any external diplomatic effort in Iraq. It is the key to winning in Afghanistan.

If Pakistan works at cross purposes or against us, it makes this almost impossible to win regardless of the number of troops we have there. The Taliban only need do enough to keep the connection between government and the people from solidifying and wait us out. Unless we’re able to take the Taliban on where they live, this is going to be a long and fruitless war.


Yes, I fully agree. You need a "teeth to tail" ratio that favors the "teeth". The ratios you describe remind me of some of those we had in Vietnam.

Winning this war means infantry, out and about and killing Taliban. Not troops "forted up" in FOBs.
Written By: McQ

Classic counter-guerilla warfare. My thought is that the Taliban’s principle threat is in the regions bordering P-stan. The terrain doesn’t lend itself to rapid overland movement even if the terrorists had lots of motor transport, which I don’t think that they do. While I imagine that it would certainly be possible for groups of Taliban to move deep into A-stan to conduct operations, their ability to do so is heavily dependent on the goodwill of the Afghanis; they have to get food from somewhere. Does anybody know where the most Taliban activity occurs? Is it in the border region, or is it more widespread across the country?

It MIGHT be possible to apply the relocation strategy followed by the British is Malaya (and attempted - badly - as the Strategic Hamlet program in RVN) and start relocating Afghanis living in the border regions to more secure areas. I’m not normally in favor of rooting people out of their homes; I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many of the Afghanis would be displeased (!). However, it might be possible, especially if we could offer a better life for them after relocation. If we could clear most of the population out of the border region, it seems to me that it would make life for the Taliban a great deal more difficult. It would also reduce the possibility of accidentally injuring or killing innocent Afghanis.

Otherwise, you’re right: we’ve got a long, hard slog. Not only have we got to find some way to induce the Pakis to cooperate, we’ve got to try to engage in nation building in A-stan so that its people have a stake in supporting their government and opposing the Taliban. Not easy to do in such a poor, ignorant country.
Written By: docjim505
URL: http://
As I see it the workable options are limited. If we can get Pakistan’s cooperation, counter-guerrilla operations as outlined are possible.

Without Pakistan’s cooperation I think there are only two alternatives. We can ignore Pakistan’s government, take the risk that they won’t either close down our supply lines or respond in force, and take the battle into Pakistan as necessary. Given the political situation in Pakistan I think that’s a poor risk.

Finally, we can limit our objectives to simply denying the territory to the Taliban/Al Qaeda. That will require a long-term, potentially permanent commitment.

There aren’t any really good alternatives.
Written By: Dave Schuler

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