As the war in Iraq recedes and a defeated al-Qaeda removes its surviving assets to Pakistan, the Afghan front is increasingly becoming the top American military priority.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, stated this week more troops and economic aid were needed “as quickly as possible” for the seven-year-old counterinsurgency battle. The core of McKiernan’s military aid request is four more combat brigades and helicopters, indicating Afghanistan will have a “surge” of its own.
“We’re in a very tough fight,” said McKiernan to reporters at the Pentagon last Wednesday. “The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility.”
But McKiernan’s request should not be read to mean that Taliban and al-Qaeda forces are “gaining” in Afghanistan, as one New York Times story indicated. Even though military deaths this year have already exceeded the 117 American dead in 2007 and currently stand at a record 134, this is still low in comparison to Iraq and American casualty figures in Vietnam and World War II – especially considering there are about 50,000 American troops in Afghanistan.
The much-reported 30 percent increase in violence in Afghanistan this year has also been accompanied with very little context. One publication, Strategy Page.com, pointed out that country-wide violence will cause 6,000 deaths in Afghanistan this year, which averages out to 24 dead per 100,000 people. In contrast, South Africa, a country at peace, will see 50 citizens out of every 100,000 die violently in 2008, mostly because of its high crime rate. Other countries, especially failed states like Somalia, probably have an even higher death rate from violence, but are unable to keep proper statistics. So the Afghan situation, while not laudable, is also not dismal.
Moreover, much of Afghanistan’s violence is also unrelated to the war. Constant tribal feuding has been a way of life for centuries in Afghanistan’s rural areas and accounts for many of the country’s killings. The tribesmen are armed, proud of their martial spirit and barely acknowledge the central government. Like most lawless regions, there are also few, if any, law enforcement officials to be found there.
Afghanistan’s drug gangs are also big contributors to the country’s lack of security and cause much of the violence. They have their own armed retainers who battle both government forces as well as each other. One American humanitarian aid worker witnessed such Afghan drug violence when he was inadvertently caught in a shootout between two rival groups but escaped unharmed.
But the biggest contribution drug gangs make to Afghanistan’s turmoil is the tax money they pay to the Taliban, which then hires fighters and buys weapons to use against Western forces and the Kabul government. Afghanistan now produces about 90 percent of the world’s heroin in its southern provinces. And although a poor poppy crop was reported this year, one estimate still puts the Taliban share at about $70 million.
The drug money has also led to Afghanistan’s biggest problem: corruption. Afghan government officials are suspected of being on drug gang payrolls. Even Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, was accused of being involved in the trade. The drug cancer, combined with officials stealing Western aid intended for the poor and dispossessed, has cost the Kabul government much of the people’s confidence and support. So like the American experience in Vietnam, the US army may win the military battles, but the country could be lost because of other, non-military factors.
Nevertheless, McKiernan is correct in asking for more troops at this time. The Taliban and al Qaeda are currently under severe pressure in their Pakistani base areas. The new Zardari government launched an all-out military offensive in August against the two terrorist organizations in their tribal agency strongholds and refuses to negotiate with them, giving them the stark options of either surrendering or leaving.
McKiernan has called the offensive’s initial results “encouraging.” About 1,000 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters have been killed in the long overdue attack. A Pakistani newspaper reported that Taliban fighters have even left Afghanistan to confront the Pakistani army, leading to a noticeable lowering of insurgent activity in American-patrolled Kunar province. After years of American complaints about jihadists crossing unhindered into Afghanistan, a senior Paksitani military official ironically commented: “The Pakistan-Afghan border is porous and is now causing trouble for us in Bajaur (tribal agency).” To keep the pressure on the enemy, the American military also announced it will also stage a winter campaign.
An expansion of the Afghan army will accompany the arrival of more American troops. Currently about 70,000 strong, Afghan forces will number 90,000 by the end of the year and 130,000 soldiers in about three years. General David Petraeus calls this Afghan military expansion a “thickening” of the local forces. An increase in numbers on both sides will, like in Iraq, allow troops to hold areas the Taliban simply reoccupies after allied forces leave.
But besides the top down strategy of meeting the enemy head on militarily, both McKiernan and Petraeus intend to increase their bottom up strategy of increasing humanitarian aid and engaging local Afghan tribal and government leaders. The Taliban also recognizes the value of this strategy, as a UN report released this week stated it had killed 30 aid workers so far this year, attacked 22 food convoys and 59 schools.
But the only hitch to McKiernan’s request for the extra brigades is that they may not arrive immediately. As American troops leave Iraq, they will probably need a few months rest at home before being sent to the Afghan-Pakistan theater. Which is probably why Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently he is prepared to send thousands of troops to Afghanistan in the spring. So, after years of empty Taliban promises to capture Kabul in a spring offensive, it will instead be facing one of its own.