Don't Believe the Hype: The Surge as a Sequel
Posted by Eric Martin
While myth-making and propagandizing can be useful tools in political contests, such embellishments can pervert policy if taken literally. As a general rule, it is best not to believe the hype - even your own. One recent example of this credulity is the conventional wisdom that has coalesced around the "Surge" in Iraq and the supposed benefits that resulted from that policy.
According to the myth, the brilliant visionary General David Petraeus shifted US forces in Iraq to a counterinsurgency (COIN) footing based on the COIN manual he wrote and that switch, together with an influx of 30,000 additional troops, led to victory in Iraq.
In reality, hundreds of Iraqis are still dying each month in political violence, though that tragic figure is far lower than the thousands per month that preceded the Surge. Serious obstacles still remain on the political front as well, with potential for violence to erupt in the future along several existing fault lines. Further, Petraeus didn't write the COIN manual, in either the literal or figurative sense. More importantly, though, it was not the influx of additional soldiers, or implementation of COIN doctrine, that played the most important part in leading to a reduction of the violence in Iraq.
Rather, the causal factors were indigenously conceived: First and foremost, the bulk of the Sunni insurgency made the decision to adandon insurgent activities, pursue political avenues and cooperate with coalition forces in targeting al-Qaeda elements (with such a turnabout commencing prior to the Surge, or Petraeus' arrival on the scene). In addition, Moqtada al-Sadr, putatitive leader of the largest Shiite insurgent faction, also changed course, ordering his loosely organized militia to stand down.
In essence, the main combatants comprising the insurgency opted to pursue their interests primarly via the political apparatus, and abandoned attacks on coalition and Iraqi government targets (in addition to the fact that the population transfers reduced sectarian tensions, and general exhaustion from fighting pervaded).
To Petraeus' credit, he was quick to seize on the outreach from insurgent groups and the extra soldiers likely enhanced our capacity to take the fight to al-Qaeda with our new Sunni allies. He deftly took advantage of the opportunities presented by both the Sunni detente and Sadr's stand down.
What the Surge taught us, then (or rather, reminded us of), is that insurgencies can be wound down when the vast majority of the combatants join the political process and abandon violence, and that we should seek to encourage and facilitate such developments when doing so is consistent with our overarching interests.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to have bought in to the mythologized version of the Surge, and has attempted to recreate in Afghanistan the successes realized in Iraq by simply adding additional soldiers, and shifting to a COIN-infused approach.
Predictably, the fighting continues: insurgent attacks are occurring at an accelerated pace, with estimates of Taliban numbers remaining constant during the recent escalation. Despite a coordinated effort by military leaders to put recent events in Afghanistan in a positive light, tangible gains using any observable metric remain elusive.
Perhaps, then, it is time to pay closer attention to the reality of the Surge, and test available opportunities to wind down the conflict through the political inclusion of the main group comprising the insurgency: the Taliban.
As Michael Cohen noted, a recent report by Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn explores the possibility that the Taliban and al-Qaeda could be separated as part of a negotiated political settlement with the current Afghan government, and US/NATO forces. Although admittedly optimistic, the report even includes this tantalizing prospect for military cooperation akin to that enjoyed by US forces working in tandem with Sunni groups in Iraq:
One such vision – recently suggested in private by a senior Taliban political strategist – is that Taliban forces could conduct counterterrorism operations, including joint operations together with U.S. Special Forces, against al-Qaeda and possibly its affiliates along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
That level of cooperation may never materialize, but something short of that could still be invaluable. Given that our primary strategic objective in Afghanistan should be to disrupt al-Qaeda and deny that group a base of operations, we should pursue negotiations with the Taliban to test the feasability of at least a separation of the two groups.
Such a settlement might involve including groups whose human rights record we might find noxious, but it is important to note that there are current factions within Karzai's government with equivalent records. We must engage the players in Afghanistan, regardless of what our ideal outcome would look like.
Unfortunately, our current strategy might be forcing the Taliban to rely more and more on al-Qaeda, sowing mistrust and giving rise to a younger, more radical crop of Taliban leaders who are taking the place of senior commanders killed or captured. Pursuit of negotiations would require a more consistent approach, without various tactics working at cross-purposes and proving counterproductive to what should be the strategic imperative.
While there is no guarantee that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban would be possible within parameters that satisfy our interests, or that enough Taliban elements would be willing to abandon al-Qaeda at an acceptable price, it is essential that we explore the possibilities further. What the Surge taught us is that the quickest way to wind down an insurgency is to turn the insurgents into allies and political participants, not rely on superstar generals or over-hyped tactical approaches.