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30K? 300K? How Many More for Afghanistan – and Why?
Posted by Siun on February 16th, 2009

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Twenty years ago this weekend the USSR left Afghanistan, after nine long and brutal years of trying to “win.” This weekend the new US envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke was in Kabul to discuss our seven year attempt to “win” but the definition of “victory” is a bit hard to pin down. (Oh, and General “PR” Petraeus was in Doha claiming Iran was aiding the Taliban! )

As the debate on Afghanistan has become more lively, some members of the progressive blogosphere have been cheering on plans to send another 30,000 troops but their positions are equally hard to pin down beyond support for yet another Petraeus “surge.” (And if you remember, that surge was no where near as successful as the PR General portrayed it) Brave New Foundation is hosting a series of video debates – Rethinking Afghanistan- which is very worth watching – and participating in.

One of the arguments that many of these surge supporters rely on involves the continuing civilian killings by US forces. They argue that civilian casualties are caused by US dependence on air strikes because we do not have enough boots on the ground – so let’s send more ground troops.

Surprisingly, that is not the solution US commanders talk about. In fact, this Friday, U.S. General David McKiernan, the commander of both U.S. and NATO troops serving in Afghanistan, issued a joint statement with the Afghan Defense Minister announcing new Rules of Engagement which actually decrease the American role in an attempt to decrease the risk of civilian casualties:

“In an ongoing endeavor to increase partnered operations and develop Afghan capability to defeat terrorists and adversaries the officials have agreed to include more Afghan representatives in the planning and execution of counter-terrorism missions, with more attention to night operations, actions in populated areas and searches,” the press release added.

Of course, we have heard this before – whenever the Afghan government really pushes back on the number of civilian casualties, one or another US commander tends to promise a new approach but not only have the casualties continued, they have in fact increased by 40% according to Stars and Stripes.

It’s also important to remember that civilian deaths are not solely caused by US air strikes. In January alone, 53 Afghan civilians were killed in 5 separate US *ground* attacks.

Even if we ignore these points, the addition of more ground troops is more likely to increase the use of air strikes rather than decrease them as the suge proponents argue. In their exhaustive study of civilian casualties Human Rights Watch notes:

Broadly speaking, airstrikes are used in two different circumstances: planned strikes against predetermined targets, and unplanned “opportunity” strikes in support of ground troops that have made contact with enemy forces (in military jargon, “Troops in Contact” or TIC). In our investigation, we found that civilian casualties rarely occur during planned airstrikes on suspected Taliban targets (one in each of 2006 and 2007). High civilian loss of life during airstrikes has almost always occurred during the fluid, rapid-response strikes, often carried out in support of ground troops after they came under insurgent attack. Such unplanned strikes included situations where US special forces units-normally small numbers of lightly armed personnel-came under insurgent attack; in US/NATO attacks in pursuit of insurgent forces that had retreated to populated villages; and in air attacks where US “anticipatory self-defense” rules of engagement applied.

This is quite similar to what happened in Iraq during the surge when the use of air strikes “in support of ground troops” increased dramatically – as did civilian casualties from those air strikes.

Missing from the surge supporters’ arguments is one key piece of information. While they argue that we should all support the plan to add 30,000 more ground troops almost immediately, they seem unwilling to say whether that 30,000 is the final total — or just a downpayment on a new quagmire.

Yet on Friday, Reuters reported on testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in which Stephen Biddle of the Council of Foreign Relations said:

Afghanistan might need a combined Afghan and Western force of 300,000 troops in southern and eastern provinces where the Taliban is strong. “If any significant fraction of this total must be American, then the resources needed will be very large,” he said.

Biddle also said

“that fatality rates of perhaps 50-100 per month could persist for many months, if not years”

and Anthony Cordesman testified that the 30,000 “are the bare minimum necessary.”

Of course, we are consistently told that if we do not defeat “them” there, we are inviting another 9/11 – an argument that not only seems oddly reminiscent of Bush GWOT rhetoric, but also does not answer how control (even if achievable which is dubious) of Afghanistan would prevent the actions of the small and semi-autonomous cells who after all did their most significant preparation in Hamburg apartments and Florida flight schools.

As the debate continues, keep an eye on Get Afghanistan Right for a selection of posts questioning the way forward in Afghanistan.

Here are a few other new articles worth a read:

Jonathan Steel in The Guardian reminds us:

Another myth is that the west “walked away” after the Russians left. If only it had. Instead Washington and Pakistan broke the Geneva agreement by maintaining arms supplies to the mujahideen.

Dr. Assem Akram, an Afghan leader currently living in the US suggests one alternative plan and notes:

The presence of foreign troops roaming around on the Afghan soil and not responding to any authority other than their own is simply unacceptable and not only violates Afghanistan’s Sovereignty, but it antagonizes a large portion of the population, which then is turning a growingly more sympathetic ear to the arguments of groups opposing the current power ‘arrangement’ in Kabul.

James Joyner at the New Atlanticist provides an interesting comparison with the Russian war in Afghanistan and suggests

Western confidence in the efficacy of military forces to affect massive changes in a primitive society could use tempering.

Cernig at Newshoggers suggests the recent news of lost US weapons shows us that

This, folks, is a “fighting machine” too incompetent or too corrupt to be allowed to “surge” in Afghanistan.

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