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Afghanistan: A Campaign at a Crossroads

Dr. David Kilcullen is one of the world’s leading experts on guerrilla warfare.  He has served in every theater of the “War on Terrorism” since 9/11 as Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus in Iraq, and chief counterterrorism strategist for the U.S. State Department.  In his new book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars In The Midst of a Big One, Kilcullen takes us on the ground to uncover the face of modern warfare, illuminating both the global challenges and small wars across the world.  In the excerpt below we learn why the Afghanistan is so very difficult and so very important in this struggle.

People often speak of “the Iraq War” and the “the war in Afghanistan” as if they were separate conflicts.  But was we have seen, Afghanistan is one theater in a larger confrontation with the transnational takfiri terrorism, not a discrete war in itself.  Because of commitments elsewhere-principally Iraq-the United States and its allies have chosen to run this campaign as an “economy of force” operation, with a fraction of the effort applied elsewhere.  Most of what has happened in Afghanistan results from this, as much as from local factors.  Compared to other theaters where I have worked, the war in Afghanistan is being run on a shoestring.  The country is about one and a half times the size of Iraq and has a somewhat larger population (32 million, of whom about 6 million are Pashtun males of military age), but to date the United States has resourced it at about 27 percent of the funding given to Iraq, and allocated about 20 percent of the troops deployed in Iraq (29 percent counting allies).  In funding terms, counting fiscal year 2008 supplemental budget requests, by 2008 operations in Iraq had cost the United States  approximately $608.3 billion over five years, whereas the war in Afghanistan had cost about $162.6 billion over seven years: in terms of overall spending, about 26.7 percent of the cost of Iraq, or a monthly spending rate of about 19.03 percent that of Iraq.  In addition to lack of troops and money, certain key resources, including battlefield helicopters, construction and engineering resources, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, have been critically short.

Resource allocation in itself is not a sign of success-arguably in Iraq we have spent more than we can afford for limited results-but expenditure is a good indicator of government attention.  Thus the international community’s failure to allocate adequate resources for Afghanistan bespeaks an episodic strategic inattention, a tendency to focus on Iraq and think about Afghanistan only when it impinges on public opinion in Western countries, NATO alliance politics, global terrorism, or the situation in Pakistan or Iran, while taking ultimate victory in Afghanistan for granted.  Two examples spring to mind: the first was when Admiral Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked in congressional testimony in December 2007 that “in Afghanistan, we do what we can.  In Iraq, we do what we must,” implying that Afghan issues by definition play second fiddle to Iraq, receiving resources and attention only as spare capacity allows.  The reason for Admiral Mullen’s remark emerges from the second, larger illustration of this syndrome: by invading Iraq in 2003, the United States and its allies opened a second front before finishing the first, and without sufficient resources to prosecute both campaigns effectively.  Western leaders committed this strategic error primarily because of overconfidence and a tendency to underestimate the enemy: they appear to have take for granted that the demise of the Taliban, scattered and displaced but not defeated in 2001, was only a matter of time.

These leaders would have done well to remember the words of Sir Olaf Caroe, a famous old hand of the North-West Frontier of British India, ethnographer of the Pashtuns, and last administrator of the frontier province before independence, who wrote in 1958 that “unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over; in British times at least they were apt to produce an after-crop of tribal unrest [and]…constant intrigue among the border tribes.”  Entering Afghanistan and capturing its cities is relatively easy; holding the country and securing the population is much, much harder: as the Soviets (with “assistance,” and a degree of post-Vietnam schadenfreude, from Washington) discovered to their cost, like the British, Sikhs, Mughals, Persians, Mongols, and Macedonians before them.  In Afghanistan in 2001, as in Iraq in 2003, the invading Western powers confused entry with victory, a point the Russian General Staff lost no time in pointing out.  The Taliban movement’s phenomenal resurgence from its nadir of early 2002 underlines this point: the insurgents’ successes seem due as much to inattention and inadequate resourcing on our part as to talent on theirs.

Afghanistan is also a very different campaign from Iraq, though the two conflicts are linked through shared Western political objectives and cooperation between enemy forces.  The Iraq campaign is urban, sectarian, primarily internal, and heavily centered on Baghdad.  The Afghan campaign is overwhelmingly rural, centered on the Pashtun South and East, with a major external sanctuary in Pakistan and, as of 2008, increasing support for the effort in Afghanistan than for Iraq (though rhetoric often does not translate into action).  Afghanistan is seen as a war of necessity, “the good war,” the “real war on terrorism.”  This gives the international community greater freedom of action than in Iraq.

Perhaps counterintuitively, events in Afghanistan also have greater proportional impact than those in Iraq, effort there has greater effect than equal effort in Iraq-a brigade (3,000 people) in Afghanistan is worth a division or more (10,000-12,000) in Iraq, in terms of its proportionate effect on the ground.  Regardless of the outcome in Iraq, Afghanistan still presents an opportunity for a positive long-term legacy for Western intervention, if it results in an Afghan state capable of effectively responding to its people’s wishes and meeting their needs.

Conversely, although the American population and the international community are inured to negative media reporting about Iraq, they are less used to downbeat reporting about Afghanistan.  Most people polled in successive opinion surveys have tended to assume that the Afghan campaign is going reasonably well, hence Taliban successes or sensational attacks in Afghanistan may actually carry greater political weight than equivalent events in Iraq, a campaign that is so unpopular and about which opinion is so polarized that people tent to assume it is going less well than is actually the case.

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