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Dec 5th, 2009

News Analysis

Similarities to Iraq Surge Plan Mask Risks in Afghanistan

Wardak Province, Afghanistan
Staff Sgt. Bobby Martin Jr., from Fayetteville, N.C., briefs his men at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 3, 2009. (Photo credit: Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press via The New York Times)

By David E. Sanger

December 5, 2009

WASHINGTON — President Obama strongly opposed President George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq during his presidential campaign, and even now he has never publicly acknowledged that it was largely successful.

But in the White House Situation Room a little more than a month ago, he told his aides, “It turned out to be a good thing.” And as many of Mr. Obama’s own advisers have recounted in recent days in interviews, the decision on the surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan by next summer was at least partly inspired by the success of the effort in Iraq, which Mr. Bush’s aides say is their best hope that historians will give them some credit when the history of a highly problematic war is written. …

But probe beneath the surface, and it becomes clear that Mr. Obama is heading into his new strategy with his ears ringing with warnings — from some of his own aides and military commanders — that many of the conditions that made the Iraq surge work do not exist in Afghanistan. …

Still, the similarities in the surges are striking. The absolute number of additional troops is roughly the same: 30,000. The Iraq figure, 28,500 troops, was 7,000 more than Mr. Bush first announced; Mr. Obama’s team says that will not happen in this case. …

Laying out the Afghan mission (MSNBC Morning Meeting, Dec. 4, 2009) – Democrats have begun pressuring the White House to define President Barack Obama’s mission in Afghanistan because they are skeptical of Afghan allies as well as the timeline. (10:20)

White House officials say it was Mr. Obama himself who pressed the idea of a surge of his own, openly acknowledging in a meeting that he had criticized it harshly during the campaign.

Both surges aimed to knock back an insurgency that had gained territory and caused high casualties, and to buy time and space to train local forces for combat. “Neither one of these surges,” said one officer involved in both decisions, “was born to exploit success. They were designed to reverse momentum.” …

Mr. Bush’s fact sheet on the surge carried the headline “The New Way Forward in Iraq.” Mr. Obama’s speech carried the title “The Way Forward in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

But the commonalities end there. The Iraq surge worked in large part because there was powerful support in Anbar Province from the so-called Awakening, the movement by local Sunni tribes who rose up against extremists who were killing people, forcibly marrying local women and cutting off the hands of men who smoked in public. In Iraq, American officials believed that most leaders of a vigorous opposition, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, were foreigners.

The United States remains hopeful that it can capitalize on Afghan militias that have taken up arms against the Taliban in local areas, but a series of intelligence reports supplied to Mr. Obama since September found no evidence in Afghanistan of anything on the scale of the Iraqi Awakening movement. What’s more, in Afghanistan the extremists, the Taliban, are natives.

“They are part of the furniture in Afghanistan; they have always been there,” one of Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism experts said, explaining why Mr. Obama’s goal is simply to degrade the Taliban’s power, not to defeat the group. In Iraq, the aim was to defeat the insurgents, a goal that has been largely achieved.

Then there is the question of whether Afghanistan’s military is trainable. Iraq’s forces were in a shambles, but the country had a tradition of military order. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminded senators this week that in Iraq it took several years to get traction, and that in Afghanistan it could take longer.

“It was really late ‘07 before the police in Iraq really started to step out,” he said, adding later, “we have to be careful with comparisons.” …


Related report

U.S. surge is big, but Afghan army is crucial


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — December 5, 2008

Image: Fire from car bomb
A car bomb set buildings on fire in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar on Friday, Dec. 5, 2008 near the city’s famed Storyteller’s Bazaar. (Photo credit: Mohammad Sajjad / AP)

Pak Police Losing in Terror War

One-year retrospective: One year ago today, I reported that the number of terrorist attacks against police in northwestern Pakistan’s tribal regions bordering Afghanistan had increased from 113 in 2005 to 1,820 in 2007, and that police are outgunned, out-financed, and fighting a losing battle against Taliban insurgents.

6 Responses to “Iraq, AfPak Have Little in Common”
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