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Yesterday evening, at a gathering of diplomats in Kabul's rarefied embassy district, the proposed U.S. troop surge was one of the main topics under discussion. As the lone American, I was all too uncomfortably aware of the raised eyebrows, smirks, or outright invective the prospect induces in those who know Afghanistan well.
"More troops mean more violence. That is quite clear," said one European political officer.
Not that I disagree – quite the opposite, in fact. Two years in Helmand province have taught me the impossibility of a military solution to the Taliban problem. Wave after wave of ineptly named maneuvers were launched – "Operation Hammer" gave way to "Operation Axe Handle" followed by "Operation Red Dagger." My personal favorite was "Operation Achilles," known among the cynical press corps as "Operation Achilles Heel."
The results were always the same: the Taliban would melt away, reluctant to face NATO air strikes. Once the foreign troops moved on, the insurgents would return, and the whole process would begin again. An analyst with an international research organization called it "mowing the lawn."
But it was much worse than that. Military operations inevitably lead to civilian casualties, destruction of property, displacement. The long-suffering Afghans are not noted for their patience, and revenge is built into the culture. For every insurgent killed, we create 100 more.
This perhaps explains a remark by Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, who spent three years in Guantanamo: "When I was there, my interrogators would taunt me, saying 'there are only 3,000 of you guys, and when we kill you all, you are finished.' Well, I have counted, and since 2001 the foreign forces claim to have killed 12,000 Taliban, and they are stronger than ever."
President Barack Obama has just signed off on an additional 17,000 troops, who will be in Afghanistan by the end of April. This is both too many and too few.
We cannot hope to blanket the country with these soldiers. Afghanistan is larger and more populous than Iraq, and we are trying to do the job with half the military force. But additional troops will certainly encourage more operations, of the type that have proved so disastrous in the south.
As the old adage has it: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."
Nails there are a-plenty. Just yesterday the U.S.-led Coalition launched an air strike against a rebel commander in western Afghanistan. The commander, Ghulam Yahya Akbari, had been a thorn in the side of the government and the foreign forces for the past two years, ever since he lost his job as head of the Department of Public Works in Herat.
Irritated with the governor of Herat, he formed a militia, took his weapons out of hiding and started supporting himself and his band of men by kidnapping people for ransom. He also lobbed a few rockets at the airport, where the Italian troops were located, as well as at the nearby UNAMA compound.
Yahya is no Talib; while he is credited with links to everyone from Al Qaeda to the hate-spewing warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, he is actually a former jihadi commander under Herati strongman Mohammad Ismail Khan, now the Minister of Energy.
He set up a Sharia government in his home district of Gozara, but generously allowed television and music. Locals say, with some regret, that he did punish anyone caught watching pornography. Crime was rare in Gozara, perhaps because of Yahya's habit of shooting thieves in the foot. He also threatened to hang any woman who dared to work for a non-governmental organization (NGO).
The U.S. strike missed its target, instead wiping out an encampment of Kuchis, or nomads. The district governor said that 15 civilians died; the bomb also killed a large number of their animals.
Afghanistan is going to require a radical rethink if the situation is not to spin completely out of control. Without this, more troops just mean more trouble.
Before the boots hit the ground, we had better be pretty sure of who the enemy really is. We devise ever more arcane acronyms for our targets: ACM (anti-coalition militias) AGE (anti-government elements) AOG (armed opposition groups). If we do not change our tactics soon, we can forget the abbreviations and simply say "Afghan."