Friday, 25 June 2010

Afghan surge is failing

The sacking of the head of US forces in Afghanistan by President Obama is not just about his irreverence towards his superiors. It reflects a much deeper crisis of US policy in Afghanistan. General McCrystal was the architect of the shift in US counter insurgency strategy towards clearing large areas of Taliban control and building up civic institutions and local government. The hope was that when local Afghan institutions took root they would keep insurgent forces at bay sufficient for NATO troops to start a gradual withdrawal.

Despite the hype at the time of its launch, and flawed comparisons with the so-called 'success' of the Iraq surge, it is clear now that McCrystal's strategy is simply not working. Take the case of the city of Majra, designed to be a showcase for the success of the new policy. Except it isn't. Despite saturating this small city (pop. 35,000) with 15,000 NATO troops, that's one soldier for every two civilians, (according to US counter-insurgency strategy, one soldier for every 50 civilians should suffice) NATO were unable to clear it of Taliban influence. McCrystal was forced to admit as much when he described Majra as 'a bleeding ulcer'. And if NATO forces cannot take a city of 35,000, imagine what will happen if they try and take a city like Kahandar (pop. 331,000) in the middle of Taliban heartland. Not surprisingly, after the failure in Majra, plans to start the offensive in Kandahar have now been put back to September.

But even if NATO are successful in the cities, only 10% of the population live in those cities, and half of that figure live in Kabul. Afghanistan is a very large country and as the Russians discovered controlling the cities does not guarantee anything. Insurgent forces can easily maintain their campaigns of resistance for years from the rural areas. And if the US change of strategy really is based on the example of Iraq, then God help all involved. Iraq was a 'success' first and foremost because the Sunnis, who were dominant in the insurgency, were literally ethnic cleansed from Baghdad. Plus, Iraq is an industrialised society, with a highly educated population and a history of local governance. None of factors apply in Afghanistan. The biggest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, where support for the insurgency is strongest, and most of the population is illiterate. Imagine trying to contstruct an army, police force, civil service and other forms of governance when most people cannot read.

What Afghanistan needs is a period of prolonged peace so that stability can ensue and the country rebuild and repair. That will not happen as long as large sections of the population perceive foreign troops as occupiers. And with the next stage of the war in Afghanistan set to be even more bloody, we can be sure it will only fuel opposition to the occupation. Current strategy is Afghanistan is doomed to failure. Why should more British soldiers, and Afghanis, die because of it?