Applying Iraq’s Broader Lessons in Afghanistan

February 23rd, 2009 - by admin

Matthew B. Stannard, Chronicle Staff Writer – 2009-02-23 23:00:14

(February 23, 2009) — As the United States and NATO craft a new strategy for Afghanistan, they are likely to apply counterinsurgency lessons learned at great cost during the war in Iraq.

Last week, President Obama ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, prompting comparisons to the “surge” strategy in Iraq.

But there was more to the surge than just additional troops, and it is those elements — changing the troops’ mission from offense to defense, increasing support for indigenous forces, and stepping up diplomacy within the nation and among its neighbors — that analysts say could be most relevant for Afghanistan.

“As Obama suggested, it’s going to take much more than more troops to solve the problem,” said Thomas Johnson, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “Without a change of strategy, more troops will not make a difference.”

At the same time, said John Nagl, co-author of the Army and Marine Corps’ “Counterinsurgency Field Manual” and president of the Center for a New American Security, any attempt to apply Iraq lessons to Afghanistan must reflect the differences between the wars.

“The biggest difference is Afghanistan is a rural rather than an urban counterinsurgency campaign,” Nagl said. “The challenge of an urban insurgency is difficult. The challenge of a rural insurgency is, I think, even harder.”

In Iraq, all roads lead to Baghdad, a city with a large population and a battered yet broad infrastructure of communication and economic links to the rest of the nation. It has been the political heart of the region for centuries.

Afghanistan is larger in both size and population than Iraq. But its capital, Kabul, is a fraction of Baghdad’s size, with limited infrastructure and connectivity to the rest of the country. It has never had strong control over the region.

“Iraq is a mostly urban place — highly literate, it has an infrastructure, there are real highways there,” said Boston University professor Thomas Barfield, an expert on Afghan society. “In Afghanistan, the highway everybody talks about is two-lane asphalt — that’s it.”

The geographic difference means front-line troops in Afghanistan are widely dispersed, and often far from support.
“The only thing they can call on when they get in trouble is air strikes,” he said. “Air strikes are inherently an imprecise weapon.”

The attendant rising rate of civilian casualties have infuriated Afghans, from President Hamid Karzai on down.
The diffusion of military forces has also hampered U.S. political goals.

“We cannot secure the local populace by visiting villages every three or four weeks,” Johnson said. “We have to operate as the Taliban do, at a local level.”

Doing so requires adopting several of the lessons of the Iraq surge. First, many analysts say, the mission of U.S. and NATO troops should shift from hunting down insurgents to protecting civilians.

“The biggest lesson from Iraq — and it holds true in Afghanistan — is the center of gravity is the population, and the security of the population, in a counterinsurgency,” Johnson said.

In Iraq, that meant pouring troops into Baghdad and protecting the urban populace. That strategy helped provide stability for political and economic development — a progressive approach called “clear, hold and build.”
But rural Afghanistan is so infrastructure-poor that analysts say troops will need to do all three — clearing, holding and building — at the same time, while protecting a rural population spread across a vast and rugged territory.

“You fly over Afghanistan in a helicopter, and you cannot believe that human beings can eke a living out of that terrain,” Nagl said. “There are not enough troops — American or Afghan — to spread across the country to provide security.”

The Afghan component — army and police — is especially critical, analysts said, because there will never be enough foreign troops to secure Afghanistan — a lesson learned from the Soviet occupation. But a new report by the United States Institute of Peace found that the supply of trainers for those forces is critically low.

A more fundamental problem, Nagl said, is that the size of the Afghan force has been defined by what Afghanistan can afford, a problem he suggested the international community should address with money, not military.

“You can get 70 Afghan soldiers for the price of one American soldier deployed to Afghanistan. Just on a pure pocketbook issue, this is the way to win this war,” he said.

Reaching out to other nations — friendly and otherwise — is another component many analysts hope to see in a new Afghanistan strategy.

Afghanistan is within the spheres of influence of Iran, China, Russia, India and Pakistan, home of the restive tribal areas where Afghanistan’s insurgents find safe haven.

“Without a stronger commitment from Pakistan, it is simply impossible to defeat the insurgency in Afghanistan,” Nagl said.

Diplomatic hands must also be extended to the Afghans themselves — another lesson from the surge in Iraq, during which local militias and leaders were given financial and political incentive to cooperate.

“The biggest thing we’re learning from Iraq is the Tip O’Neill thing, which is ‘All politics are local,'” Barfield said. “The biggest thing we did was in Iraq was we sat down … with people and said, ‘What are our common interests?’ ”
The same thing is needed in Afghanistan, Johnson said, but using methods that reflect the diffused village culture of the rural insurgency.

So far, he said, the United States has focused on supporting the central government. Instead, Johnson envisions the deployment of perhaps 200 teams combining U.S. and Afghan troops and civilian specialists in subjects such as agriculture and hydrology.

“What we have to work on is trust and confidence. And we will not win trust and confidence from the top down,” he said. “We tried to build a pyramid putting the capstone on first. We need to build from the bottom up.”

Empowering local leaders may require some political reforms — such as allowing governors to be elected locally instead of appointed by Kabul — and risks reawakening warlordism if it is not handled with care, analysts warn.

It also could mean abandoning the quest for a Western-style centralized democratic government in Afghanistan, and instead focusing on simpler ambitions, Nagl said: preventing the country from becoming a terrorist sanctuary or triggering a regional crisis, and helping the Afghan people build a sustainable government of their own design.

But given time, Johnson and other analysts say, Afghanistan can regain the peace it enjoyed for half of the last century.

“It’s a generational project,” Johnson said. “If the Obama administration thinks they can do this in the first four years or even eight years, I think they’re delusional.”
E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at

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