Obama: Purge the Urge to Surge

Dec 2, 09 | 11:33 AM   byStephen Spain
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President Obama seems determined to demonstrate how much, much more (30,000 troops and $30 billion a year) can produce much, much less (less success in Afghanistan, less stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and less rationality in nuclear-ambitious Iran). In embracing the conventional wisdom of his national security “experts,” he has committed our troops to spraying gasoline on an already robust fire, while at the same time holding back the hoses for at least 18 months.

Obama’s surge is based on the assumption that we need to use counterinsurgency tactics to defeat the Taliban. This might be a sound strategy, if we were fighting an insurgency and the Taliban was the core force behind it. Lumping all opposition to the Kabul government and the western occupation that supports it into “the Taliban” is either willful ignorance, cynical propaganda, or a combination of the two. Many of those now fighting our forces fought the Taliban previously and will fight them again if they attempt to assert control in their home areas.

We are not fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan; we are fighting a resistance. This is more than just the political semantics of calling the bad guys “terrorists” and the good guys “freedom fighters.” In an insurgency, there is a government with some degree of legitimacy, popular support, and authority facing a cohesive internal opponent seeking to take power in order to run the country in a radically different way. In a resistance, real power is held by an occupying force that is opposed by a variety of groups united only in their resistance to foreign occupation. While Afghanistan has some elements of both, it is predominantly a resistance, not an insurgency. That bodes poorly for our strategy, since an insurgency can be defeated by force of arms, accommodation, or negotiation, while a resistance can only end when the occupying army leaves.

Wasting thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars futilely chasing a result (the end of the resistance in Afghanistan) that we could achieve at almost no additional cost by simply leaving is bad enough. But further destabilizing a region with an extraordinary potential for bringing together terrorists and nuclear weapons is asking for Armageddon. Building up our forces in Afghanistan hurts Pakistan’s ability to rein in its extremists. Like the ongoing drone strikes, it is simply more fuel for recruitment to the cause. And having 100,000 American troops on both its eastern and western borders is hardly going to ease the paranoia that fuels Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons.

It’s not surprising that the military and national security establishments advocate a surge in Afghanistan. When the only tool you know how to use is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and you just keep hammering away. But Obama should know better. He should know that there are other tools in the box (and outside of it). We can help stabilize Afghanistan, assist Pakistan in marginalizing its extremists, and contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, the Obama surge not only won’t achieve these goals, it makes them less attainable than ever.

Stephen Spain spent five years in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1990s, working for the United Nations and Save the Children in Herat, Islamabad, Jalabad, Kandahar and Quetta.

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