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Afghanistan, 2014: The Surge and the Future of Afghanistan

By 2014, the United States will have fought in Afghanistan for over 12 years. It’s been eight years since former President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the U.S. was “at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization”. But things are far from stable in the former terrorist haven. In 2009, President Obama launched a 30,000 troop “surge”, under the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal and later General David Petraeus, in an attempt to further protect and stabilize the nation. The results of the surge left a significant effect on the war and country. The war has changed immensely in the years that followed. U.S. and NATO troops will begin withdrawal in July, ultimately finishing with a transition to local Afghan forces in stable provinces. As America begins to reduce its presence in the country, the fate of this long and deadly military operation rests on the ability of the Afghans to provide for themselves and whether or not the Afghan people want to support the Taliban or combat it.
How the Surge Changed the Afghanistan War

In December of 2009, President Obama authorized a 30,000 troop increase in Afghanistan. The decision added to the 68,000 troops already fighting there, and pushed the cost of the war to $120 billion a year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. This “surge” was led by General Stanley McChrystal, and was later taken over later the following year by General David Petraeus, the commander of the 2007 Iraqi surge. The increased troop presence has been accompanied by numerous changes in military operations, the goals America pursues in the region, the methods used by the enemy, and how the U.S. will try to create peace and stability in a still fragile country.

As Afghanistan stands right now, only select regions of the 250,000 square mile country are under NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) control. According to The Economist, “security bubbles” (intensively patrolled, moderately secure zones located near coalition bases) cover less than 15 square miles. These safe zones are located mainly in the east, particularly near Kabul, while the south and west remains much more problematic. According to David Axe, a freelance video journalist who spent time with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in a report with C-SPAN, the south remains the headquarters for the Taliban, and is characterized by high levels of open warfare. Corruption plagues the government; President Hamid Karzai (whose reelection in 2009 was overwhelmed with fraud) has threatened to join the Taliban, while much of the ISAF funding slated for development goes to untrustworthy contractors that may have connections to the Taliban. Changing the culture surrounding Afghan politics is dependent on the people. But the changing of warfare in the country is directly reliant upon the troop surge.

However, though numerous problems surround the nation, the increased military presence has led to increased activity, and in some cases, success. One such example is Sabari, a district in the province of Khost. As General Petraeus told The Economist, the increased troops have created an opportunity to move into dangerous areas like Sabari for the first time. Similar progress has been made in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar according to The Heritage Foundation. The larger military presence allowed for an increase in “complex attacks” (military operations involving more than one assailant and at least two different attack methods). According to The Economist, the number of weekly complex attacks per month increased since the surge, peaking at roughly 105 per week in September of 2010, before declining to much lower levels (approximately 20 per week) in the months that followed. In an interview with Frontline, General Petraeus expressed his belief that these increased missions, especially “kill/capture” and “clear, hold, and build” missions, are “very important tool[s]” (though even he admitted that they are not the “silver bullet” needed to ensure success in the region).

Of course, with this increased fighting comes increased violence. NATO forecasts 2011 to be the most violent year of the war, with up to a 30% increase in violent incidents, and General Petraeus and other top commanders expect heavy fighting this summer. Provinces like Logar, according to Axe, have become fields of Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), with IED explosions accounting for about half of all American deaths or serious injuries. After initially having very little, if any, IEDs, the Pentagon claims that there 15,600 IEDs found in Afghanistan each year (but as Axe explains, that still doesn’t account for all the undetected IEDs still out there). Meanwhile, the Taliban has begun to get creative with its tactics. MSNBC reports that the Taliban, as illustrated on attacks on government buildings on April 18 and May 28, are now focusing on breaching the Afghan security forces and getting under cover in order to launch attacks. The extremist group then hopes that these attacks will disrupt the already slow development of Afghan security forces.

At the same time, the surge has caused the U.S. to consider a strategy that would represent a complete turnaround form current operations. According to Frontline, there has been discussion about possibly trying to come to the table and negotiate with the Taliban. But this plan requires military presence to be effective: the idea behind this approach is that Taliban officials, after realizing the violence and strength of NATO and ISAF forces, would ultimately determine that a peaceful compromise would be better than constant violence. The Obama administration has supported this idea; according to The Economist, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called in February for a “diplomatic surge”. Though some claim this is being “soft on terror”, the biggest problem with this approach is that attempts to engage the Taliban have been bleak. As discussed by The Economist, President Karzai has tried to negotiate with the terrorists, even setting up the High Peace Council to talk with the Taliban, but the insurgents simply won’t cooperate and don’t want to talk. Diplomacy with insurgents was used in Iraq and was fairly successful, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with Afghanistan. For now, only military operations seem to be making any progress.

The troop surge has allowed American forces to increase their presence and attacks on the enemy. With more troops, new operations have been able to be carried out, and success has come to operations that had been previously struggling. And whether a majority of Americans support the war or not, complete abandonment of the mission would be catastrophic. When the U.S. led the invasion of Afghanistan back in 2001, the nation was a breeding ground for violent extremists and openly harbored terrorism. The Council on Foreign Relations reports that Taliban was removed from power in less than three months, which means that the following ten years have been spent maintaining a non-terrorist (but clearly not corruption-free) government. Whether one refers to this in the more negative term of “nation building” or says that keeping high troop levels is “finishing the job” is up to personal interpretation. But there is little evidence that removing troops wouldn’t lead to a reverse of the success in Afghanistan. Many analysts, such as those at think-tanks like the Cato Institute, support reduced military presence, relying more on select counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, such as those that resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death this past March. But an Afghanistan with such little American support would probably not be able to, if not unwilling to, function as a safe and democratic country. Rather, the nation would most likely fall under heavy (perhaps even complete) terrorist influence, meaning that those select special forces operations would escalate back into large military operations against a large enemy, similar to the situation present when America first went into the region.

According to Fox News, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops in his final visit to Afghanistan this past Friday about the importance of continuing the war: “Success of the mission should override [the cost of the war] else because the most costly thing of all would be to fail. We don't want to precipitate a rush to the exits,” he said. General James Bucknall, the most senior British general fighting in Afghanistan, agreed with Gates. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Bucknall said that any sort of large scale troop reductions shouldn’t be started until 2012 at the earliest.

Still, there is a growing resentment of the Afghan War, and that’s something that even the surge can’t change. According to a 2011 CNN poll, a whopping 63% of Americans oppose the war. Both bin Laden and Ilyas Kashmiri (a top al Qaeda leader killed this past Friday according to Fox News) were found in Pakistan, questioning the terrorist threat of Afghanistan and creating a larger stir regarding Pakistan’s terrorist involvement. Texas Representative and presidential hopeful Ron Paul (R.) summed up the viewpoint of those that oppose the war during the first Republican debate this year.

“[Bin Laden] wasn't caught in Afghanistan. Nation-building in Afghanistan and telling those people how to live and getting involved in running their country hardly had anything to do with finding the information where he was being held in a country that we give billions of dollars of foreign aid to, at the same time we are bombing that country…Not having the troops in Afghanistan wouldn't have hurt. We went to Afghanistan to get him, and he hasn't been there. Now that he's killed, boy, it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it, get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn't helped us and hasn't helped anybody in the Middle East,” Paul said according to the Huffington Post.

The 2009 troop surge has been effective in some areas, yet the operation in Afghanistan still remains dark as a whole. The war has changed very much since the U.S. recommitted to the war and increased its presence. But there are much bigger changes that must come in order for this war to be considered a success.

What Afghanistan Will Look Like in the Years to Come
As the 2014 withdrawal date approaches, there are still large concerns and even greater tasks at hand.Turning over to the Afghans will be difficult, especially if corrupt politicians remain in power. Support for the Taliban is very much alive in Afghan natives, and there’s hostility to American forces among many Afghans. U.S. and NATO forces have about three years to strengthen and stabilize the nation as much as possible. After that, the status of the nation is contingent upon the local citizens.

Even with American support, the current condition of Afghanistan is dismal, beginning with the Karzai administration. His term ends in 2014, and by law he can’t run again, but the possibility of him running for a third term is high. If that happens, the problems for the U.S. will increase exponentially. Karzai has been very ineffective in the war, and the government has made little progress towards cutting down on corruption. According to The Economist, Karzai has called for the end of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams - groups of civilians and military officials in charge of carrying out developmental work run by the ISAF. Karzai has called it an intrusion on his power, but as one UN official told The Economist: “All the governors I speak to say that without the PRTs nothing would happen in their provinces. Clearly there may be other motives behind Karzai than stabilizing his country. If he was to illegally be elected for a third term, the U.S. would either have to consider forcing out of office, hopelessly in a bloodless coup, or risk watching all their success crumble as Karzai turns a blind eye on the growing corruption and terrorism of the country.

Even if Karzai is gone, success relies upon the people. According to The Economist, only 13% of all Afghans support the Taliban, and according to the Huffington Post, nearly 70% of Afghans support American troops (though that number falls dramatically in terrorist havens in the southwest). Those are encouraging numbers, and hopefully signal a country that favors a transition from repression to a democratic government. Making that transition possible relies on the NATO trained Afghan security forces. Some indications are promising: The Economist reports that the Afghan army and police force is now 285,000 strong, with hopefully more on the way. The news source also reported that there are 39 Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces, with 37 more being trained, another positive sign.

These are all good indications for America, because creating a strong Afghanistan relies upon this local support. However, this is by no means a sign that fighting is over. The Economist says that even by the withdrawal date of 2014, there will still be at least 25,000 troops playing a supporting role against the estimated 35,000 insurgents. And much of the success in Afghanistan is reliant upon their neighbor, Pakistan. The U.S. will have to investigate Pakistan’s involvement in terrorism, particularly their ties with al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, a major terrorist faction connected to the Taliban. Pakistan has the potential to be a committed ally in the war on terror, but could just as easily spiral into a terrorist haven itself. A chaotic Afghanistan would only escalate this dark possibility, as a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government would completely undermine any advances made against terrorism. Even if talks with Pakistan over terrorism go well, a weak Afghanistan provides Pakistani terrorist with an easy retreat. Creating a functional government and maintaining stability in Afghanistan is a critical step towards promoting peace in the region.

Afghanistan has gone through a multitude of changes over the lifetime of this war, especially after the 2009 troop surge. More troops has led to more activity, and hopefully, more success. But there is still an exorbitant amount of problems plaguing the country, the government, and its neighbors. The Afghan people hold the key to their nation’s success, as a transition to local power in 2014 fast approaches. Americans hope that by the withdrawal date they will be handing control over to a peaceful and democratic administration, but that’s a lofty goal even by the most optimistic analyst’s standards. The Soviets couldn’t control Afghanistan with a shadow government in the 1980’s; America must hope they don’t share their fate in failing in Afghanistan.




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