James Napier | Monday, February 15, 2010
As Operation Mushtarak (which means togetherness in Pashtun) — aimed at Taliban strongholds in Helmand province — enters the fifth day of operations, NATO coalition forces are meeting with considerable tactical success. Opposition has been minimal and the show of force has, according to CNN, convinced many tribal leaders in the area that the coalition is there to stay. Still, commanders on the ground have emphasized that the operation is not yet complete and may still encounter significant complications. Placed into the larger picture of Obama’s planned surge, the operation illustrates the capabilities of American and coalition forces when effectively concentrated against the enemy.
At the same time, it is impossible to judge the true effectiveness of the operation or the Surge at this time. In the past, initially successful operations have been unable to bring as much pressure against the Taliban as was hoped or were unable to hold out against Taliban counterattacks. Additionally, it should be remembered that there will be an additional 30,000 troops on the ground by the end of the Surge and it is impossible to say with certainty how successful this massive deployment will be until all boots are on the ground. Keeping Iraq in mind, many political commentators began claiming the Iraqi Surge was a failure before much of the deployment could be carried out.
Another aspect of the Iraqi Surge applicable to Afghanistan is that both operations are only military operations and are only one aspect of a multi-faceted solution. To say that a military operation is a failure because it did not bring political unity is like saying an apple tastes bad because it does not taste like an orange. Military operations are meant to provide military solutions and provide a certain level of security — nothing more or less. Just as much political and structural ground work remains to be done in post-Surge Iraq; the same will be true in Afghanistan when military operations begin winding down.
Despite the parallels one can draw between Iraq and Afghanistan, there are also many differences and certain approaches taken in Iraq that will simply not work in Afghanistan. While Iraq has its share of sectarian problems, it has a history — however troubled — of unification and Iraqis have shown an ability — albeit rarely — to overcome sectarian rivalries for the sake of a broader communal concept. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has long been a very fractured country divided into a patchwork of a variety of tribes and ethnic groups. It also lacks natural resources such as the vast oil reserves found in Iraq. Money, after all, makes things go more smoothly. Additionally, the Afghan government and security forces have — with few exceptions — proven to be shaky partners. President Hamid Karzai is well known for his back room dealings and flirtations with nefarious characters. And, there is a high turn-over rate in the Afghan security forces.
Afghanistan does have its share of problems, but this is not to say it is a hopeless situation. As tempting as it is to cut and run in the short term, such a short-sighted strategy will undoubtedly come back to haunt the United States as has happened with so many other policies from America’s past. Rather, it is imperative that America take Afghanistan’s unique history, social structure and culture into account when hashing out its long-term foreign policy towards the region and Afghanistan in particular. Perhaps Afghanistan will never be a well-functioning liberal democracy but this is not essential for American security or necessarily worth the necessary investments in blood and treasure. Rather, the United States should try and establish friendly relations with Afghanistan’s rulers and strike a balance between pressuring Afghanistan to democratize and partnering with Afghanistan against enemies of the United States. Simply put, there is not enough public interest, or international support for loftier goals.
James Napier is a senior history major. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.