The Wilson Quarterly

A surge of about 30,000 extra troops in 2007 finally allowed the United States to wrest the initiative from the enemy in Iraq after nearly four years of war. So what’s the holdup in ­Afghanistan?

A shortage of troops and a vast porous border, write Lieutenant Colonels Robert A. Downey of the Air Force and Lee K. Grubbs of the Army, Commander Brian J. Malloy of the Navy, and Lieutenant Colonel Craig R. Wonson of the Marine Corps. Afghanistan is a “much more chal­lenging” theater than Iraq. It is bigger, more populous, heavily rural, strongly tribal, and historically ungoverned from the center. It also has a 3,400-mile border across which insurgents slip like minnows through a wide mesh ­net.

A shortage of troops and a vast open border make Afghanistan a much more challenging theater than Iraq.

About 42 million Pashtuns live in the broader ­Afghanistan-­Pakis­tan region, some 14 million of them in Afghanistan. The Afghan Pash­tuns act as the sea that buoys 10,000 to 15,000 insurgents of the Taliban, according to the authors. The Taliban focuses on coercing or influencing the Pashtun population in the rural districts. In July it operated in 130 of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts, and from June to August temporarily overran 41 of them, moving back and forth across the ambiguous and unsecured ­Afghanistan-­Pakistan ­border.

Army counterinsurgency doc­trine calls for an “optimal density ratio” of about 20 troops to every 1,000 people, an impossible figure to achieve given Afghanistan’s scattered population of about 32 million, even with augmented NATO and Afghan Na­tional Security Forces, Downey and colleagues acknowledge. What would be possible is a surge of eight brigades (to Iraq’s five), adding 25,000 to 40,000 personnel. Three brigades would move into villages to clear them of Taliban and take up resi­dence, using the same ­“clear-­hold-­build” strategy that has been em­ployed in Iraq. Three brigades would operate along the border, and two would train Afghan security forces. Most of the surge forces would be shifted from ­Iraq.

Without a surge, the authors conclude, security will continue to deteriorate, the Taliban will assume control over much of the country, and political instability will reign.

In a speech in Washington after stepping down as commander of the Multi-National ­Force–­Iraq, General David H. Petraeus said that the United States faces a “thinking, adapting, and diabolically brutal enemy” in both Iraq and Afghanistan that re­quires constant learning on U.S. forces’ part. “By the way,” he added, so fast and change­able is the enemy that “what worked in Iraq may not work in Afghanistan.”

THE SOURCES: “How Should the U.S. Execute a Surge in Afghanistan?” by Robert A. Downey, Lee K. Grubbs, Brian J. Malloy, and Craig R. Wonson, in Small Wars Journal, Nov. 15, 2008.

“After Action Report: The Surge From General Petraeus’s Perspective” by Dennis Steele, in Army, Dec. ­2008.

Photo courtesy of the International Security Assistance Force

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