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30 November 2023

US mission in Afghanistan tougher than Iraq

A burqa-clad woman walks on a road as snow falls in Kabul (REUTERS)

The United States is hoping a strategy similar to the one it used to improve security in Iraq, including an influx of troops, will work in Afghanistan -- one of president-elect Barack Obama's priorities.

But US and Afghan officials say the mission will be more difficult here as Afghanistan is splintered by tribal rivalries and weakened by the existence of militant safe havens across the border in Pakistan.

"We cannot just take the tactics, techniques and procedures that worked in Iraq and employ them in Afghanistan," General David Petraeus, commander of US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, recently told Foreign Affairs.

At the start of 2006, Afghanistan was touted as a US military success, while Iraq was mired in a seemingly endless spiral of violence.

Today, the tables have turned: 2008 was the deadliest year for US soldiers in Afghanistan since they arrived in 2001, and the least deadly in Iraq since the start of the invasion there in 2003.

Washington helped reduce the violence in Iraq and pave the way for progress toward political reconciliation by sending more troops, intensifying operations and co-opting some of the rebels into militias paid to help maintain security.

The US military is hoping to implement a similar plan in Afghanistan, where security has worsened in the past two years as the Taliban-led insurgency has gathered pace.

Between 20,000 and 30,000 extra US troops are due in Afghanistan this year, almost doubling the number of American soldiers on the ground from the current 32,000 -- compared with 146,000 in Iraq.

Nearly 35,000 troops from other countries are also deployed here.

The bulk of the US reinforcements are expected to be sent to the south and east -- hotbeds of insurgent activity along the porous 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) border with Pakistan.

US officials and senior Obama advisers told Tuesday's Washington Post that the deployments were not an Iraq-like "surge", but rather a way to gain time to re-evaluate US goals and develop a new sweeping strategy for Afghanistan.

Last month, outgoing US President George W. Bush acknowledged an influx of troops here would likely make things worse before they get better.

"You'll see violence tick up," Bush told reporters on Air Force One en route to Kabul for a farewell visit.

"The degree of difficulty in Afghanistan is high. Nevertheless, the mission is essential."

The differences between Iraq and Afghanistan are manifold, and the fight for Afghanistan could be far longer than the conflict in Iraq.

Infrastructure here is dire, with a lack of secondary roads making it more difficult for troops to manoeuvre, and there are fewer skilled workers.

Beyond the logistical difficulties, the main challenge appears to be whether foreign forces can maintain a semblance of stability long enough for Kabul to build up its own security forces.

In Iraq, the US army has already handed over power to local authorities in 13 of 18 provinces with 560,000 policemen and 260,000 soldiers protecting 28 million people.

The security forces in Afghanistan, which has a similar population but a larger surface area covered by rugged mountainous terrain, lag well behind those of Iraq, with only about 80,000 soldiers and 70,000 police.

Corruption is rife in the police, while the absence of government authority in villages is often cited as a reason for the resurgence of the Taliban.

To address these shortcomings, the United States has spoken of creating local militias -- as in Iraq -- for community-level security.

But the idea has stirred concern in Kabul, which remembers all too well the bloody factional conflicts of the 1980s.

"Afghanistan is not Iraq," said Hamidullah Tarzi, a finance minister in the 1989-1992 communist regime.

"Here the people are much more divided and the tribal issue is very strong -- all these (new) militias are going to fight each other."

Ahmad Nader Nadery, of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, says the answer lies not in a US troop surge, but in turning the conflict into "an Afghan war."

"The solution is to reform the police and to reinforce the army," he told AFP.

Another complicating factor for the United States is the question of how to flush Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked militants out of Pakistan's lawless tribal zones along the Afghan border.

"One cannot adequately address the challenges in Afghanistan without adding Pakistan into the equation," Petraeus has said.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged a new era of cooperation following talks in Kabul last week.

But questions remain about Islamabad's ability to control its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which Kabul says is the godfather of the Taliban.

The United States could also face problems if its NATO partners abandon the fight.

The alliance's supreme commander, US General Bantz Craddock, predicted that US forces would have to be in Afghanistan for "at least" a decade.

But he admitted that financial concerns and low public support could prompt European countries to pull troops out just as Obama looks for back-up.