Afghanistan Policy: The Big Picture
Military operational capacity is currently at its highest level in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001. General Petraeus recently told reporters “We are at the highest operational tempo that we have ever reached.” according to Politico. By the numbers this means: 4,002 operations, 235 insurgent leaders killed or captured, 1,673 insurgents captured and 1,066 insurgents killed. “’Non-kinetic’” operations include 1,239 “population centric” operations, according to Politico’s Morning Defense.
This comes at a time when combat deaths in Afghanistan are reaching new records every month–56 in August, a total of 326 so far this year, already out pacing 2009 by 9 deaths. Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attacks and suicide attacks are also on the rise. Afghan civilian deaths have also sharply risen in the first half of 2010; according to the UN the Taliban is to blame for a large porton of that increase. Regardless of who is to “blame,” many Afghans see the U.S. military presence as the primary source of the problem.
These statistics are grim, but the worst may be yet to come.
Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are set to take place on September 18th. Fraud, ballot stuffing, and intimidation created upheaval after the August Presidential election, which returned President Karzai for a second term; there has yet to be any indication that this September’s elections will be less fraudulent or corrupt. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC)–the electoral watchdog of Afghanistan–was effectively taken over by Karzai in February; the move was rejected by the lower house of Parliament, but upheld by Afghanistan’s Parliamentary upper house in April. Karzai’s coalition with the Northern Alliance, already troubled, will likely suffer irreparably if these Parliamentary elections are viewed as broadly fraudulent and corrupt. Widespread election fraud will inevitably cause great unrest in Afghanistan.
Election issues are compounded by a failing war strategy. Even General Petraeus has, through his actions, acknowledged that Counterinsurgency (COIN) is faltering. Since he took the command post in Afghanistan, the military has shifted from (COIN) to Counter Terrorism in some parts of the country by training and arming militia groups. Attempting to create unity for a strong central government (COIN) while also training and arming militia groups (Counter Terrorism) are two diametrically opposed strategies. Militia groups will sooner or later decide that what is in the interests of the United States–or worse yet, the interests of the Karzai government–are no longer in the interests of the militia, at which point the U.S. military will find itself standing both against and between more feuding factions of the Afghan populace.
There is no clear end to the fighting in sight, as General Petraeus acknowledged recently by declaring he expects “sustained violence” throughout the country. Indeed, the U.S. and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) will continue to suffer from monthly high, record setting casualty reports until the seasonal lull in November-December. In sum, instability will likely be on the rise sharply until the end of the year.
This fact is strategically important: the U.S. military will never look at instability as a reason to deescalate or withdraw from Afghanistan; rather, the U.S. military leadership sees instability as a reason to maintain or increase the level of forces on the ground. The military rhetoric in July may very well be that it is necessary to either maintain current troop strength or even increase the number of troops on the ground. Case and point: the Rolling Stones article which cost General McChrystal his job mentioned the DoD’s internal talks about requesting more troops next year.
As Afghanistan’s operational capacity begins to out pace Iraq’s at its peak, the peace community must utilize this moment to re-frame the debate by pointing out that greater U.S. and coalition presence does not create stability; rather a larger military footprint only causes further and perpetuates greater instability. If we collectively fail to make our case–if we are again boxed in by the Pentagon public relations machine–I believe the “draw down” this coming July will be minimal at best.