Obama's Afghanistan strategy has a familiar look

As a senator, Obama opposed the Iraq buildup, but his Afghan plan keeps key elements. Experts warn that the two wars differ.

December 03, 2009|By Julian E. Barnes, Ned Parker and Laura King
  • Army Sgt. Joseph Delair of Syracuse, N.Y., center, instructs Afghan national police officers in the use of weapons near Sar Hawza in the eastern province of Paktika.
Army Sgt. Joseph Delair of Syracuse, N.Y., center, instructs Afghan national… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, Baghdad and Washington -- In crafting his new Afghanistan policy, President Obama borrowed liberally from an unlikely source: the playbook of George W. Bush.

Obama was an outspoken critic of former President Bush's decision to increase troop strength in Iraq in early 2007, a point nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion when the country was in the midst of a sectarian war. He maintained his opposition throughout the presidential campaign, shrugging off Republican criticism that he was overlooking the subsequent decline in violence.

The Afghan strategy Obama announced Tuesday shares many similarities with the Iraq "surge": a similar number of troops, a fast push into the country, a limited duration, an emphasis on training local forces and a hope of flipping the allegiance of insurgents.

But experts say there are key differences between the two countries, particularly in the nature of the insurgency, the terrain, the quality of security forces and the political atmosphere. Some of what worked in Iraq is likely to prove more difficult in Afghanistan, they say. And even in Iraq, after the added troops have left, all the gains are not necessarily secure.

"It is a concept very similar to the Iraq surge," said Frederick Kagan, a military scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who helped conceive the Iraq buildup strategy and, on Afghanistan, advised Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander there, on his assessment of the war.

Scholars and Defense officials have debated which factors were the most critical in Iraq. What is not in doubt is that violence levels in Iraq dropped quickly, positioning the U.S. to begin the withdrawal of the large military force that remains, which is to begin after parliamentary elections early next year.

The buildup was supposed to give "time and space" for Iraqi security forces to develop, and for Iraqi politicians to make compromises on key legislation meant to reconcile sectarian factions. The security forces have improved, but reconciliation remains elusive.

Obama was dismissive of the "time and space" argument as a senator, but officials with his administration used the same language Tuesday, arguing that Obama's plan would allow the Afghan government to develop its security forces, enact reforms and fight corruption.

Senior Defense officials said they looked carefully at the strategies that worked in Iraq while crafting the new Afghanistan policy.

Testifying Wednesday before a Senate committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wryly drew some comparisons between the two deployments, including the need to explain the strategies to skeptical lawmakers.

"This is the second surge I've been up here defending," Gates said.

Most obviously, the two strategies employed a similar number of troops. Although Bush said at the time that his policy would add 21,500 troops, the total approached 30,000 when support troops were added in -- the same number Obama is adding in Afghanistan.

One of the most important developments in Iraq began largely independently of U.S. actions: when Sunni Arabs turned against the militants of the group Al Qaeda in Iraq. Sunni insurgents who had been fighting both Iraqi Shiite Muslims and foreign forces broke with the militants. Sunni tribal leaders who either had sympathized with the insurgency or feared speaking out against it quickly sought an alliance with U.S. forces. The Americans then helped organize them into local security forces and, in essence, paid them not to fight the U.S. or Iraqi militaries.

As violence has ebbed, there has been some success in bringing the former fighters into the political process. But relatively few have been given jobs in the security forces, as promised. Many of the original leaders of the Sunni revolt in Baghdad have been arrested, are in hiding or exile, or face legal proceedings.

In Afghanistan, getting militants to quit the insurgency may prove more difficult.

Military officials have been trying a variety of pilot projects aimed at getting Taliban foot soldiers to change sides and support local government elders.

"I think they should be faced with the option to come back if they are willing to come back under the constitution of Afghanistan . . . they can come back with dignity," McChrystal told reporters in Kabul, the Afghan capital, after Obama's speech.

Stephen Biddle, a military analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations who advised Army Gen. David H. Petraeus during the Iraq buildup and McChrystal on Afghanistan, cautioned that the Taliban rank and file may not switch allegiance as easily as the Sunni fighters did in Iraq.

The Sunnis, Biddle said, had been defeated in a sectarian civil war in Baghdad and had soured on their alliance with Al Qaeda in Iraq in the western province of Anbar. The Taliban, in contrast, believe they are winning.

"The key Taliban factions have just not been beaten on the battlefield," Biddle said.

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