I am extremely concerned that this is our ninth year at war. I am extremely concerned about the health of our force. I am concerned about the rotation arrangement [for troops]. ... I see the stress in every level of our chain of command, from those who are doing the most difficult fighting and sacrificing on the ground to even our senior leaders.
These were the words of Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussing the state of the Afghanistan conflict in late June at the Aspen Institute. As General David Petraeus assumes the mantle of leadership in Afghanistan, he faces the difficult task of shifting the momentum away from the Taliban. No matter what his wizardry in counterinsurgency, the challenge in Afghanistan remains daunting. The proverbial 'enemy' -- i.e. the Taliban-led insurgency -- appears to be gaining strength, whereas America's ally, the Karzai government, increasingly looks disjointed. In fact, June was the deadliest month for NATO troops (102 casualties) since the war began.
More than 20 years ago, Barnett Rubin, an omnipresent Afghanistan expert, lamented in Foreign Affairs that the "turbulence of this once isolated land can no longer be a matter of indifference to a world whose powers have invested so much in this struggle." Unfortunately, it was precisely indifference on the part of the international community that ensued; the backward nation of Afghanistan was deemed irrelevant with the end of the Cold War. Today, the consequences of repeating history and abandoning the country would be catastrophic for global security, not to mention the Afghan people.
Yet, how do you define victory against a fragmented collection of insurgent groups -- a question raised by former Senator Gary Hart to Admiral Mullen at the Aspen Institute Forum. It is similarly unclear who will join the coalition to 'victory.' Canada has maintained its intent to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011, something that could influence other wavering nations like the United Kingdom and Germany, likely leaving the U.S. on its own in the near future. As for Afghan forces, according to a new report by the U.S. government, only 23% of Afghan soldiers could work unsupervised.
Many analysts have, however, touted the new surge as a stepping-stone towards success in Afghanistan. Peter Bergen favorably compared the circumstances in Afghanistan today with those of Iraq just a few years ago; for example, casualties yearly in Afghanistan are similar to those monthly in Iraq at the height of its violence. Sri Lanka's surge demonstrated tactical success in extinguishing a long-term insurgency, and what had appeared to be an endless conflict. Nevertheless, an Afghan surge, while a comforting idea, will be hard-pressed to turn the tide in the country.
Firstly, unlike in Iraq, the corresponding indigenous forces are more fragmented and less motivated; there are no awakening councils in Afghanistan. Secondly, in Iraq the surge focused on cities, particularly in the Sunni triangle, and other urban areas in Al-Anbar province. Afghanistan is a much more mountainous and treacherous terrain, unlike much of the desolate desert of Al-Anbar. Additionally, the disparate population in Afghanistan is largely rural (est. 75%), while in Iraq it is largely urban (65%), making it easier for the insurgency to regroup, and survive in isolated pockets, not to mention the sanctuary available for the Taliban in the tribal areas in Pakistan.
Adm. Mullen mentioned that as goes Kandahar so does Afghanistan. The embattled city will be the focus of a NATO surge operation similar to that in Marjah in February, which while bearing some fruit, has left the town haunted by the Taliban and embroiled in government corruption. It is difficult to visualize success with more of the same. Frequent reports indicate that even Afghan President Hamid Karzai is hedging his bets by increasing contacts (whether direct or indirect) with insurgent groups.
The arrival of a savior in General Petraeus should be used as an opportunity to fundamentally break with the past nine years and mark a new strategic course. New approaches may lead to new ideas to shift the momentum. Invite the Iranians, Indians, Chinese and Pakistanis to one roundtable. Hold ceasefire talks with any willing insurgents. Consider a sincere end-date (the five year rough timeline at the G-8 Summit does not suffice) and clear withdrawal strategy. With more of the same, there will continue to be a lack of creative solutions being offered, and only further despair in Afghanistan.