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Afghanistan: State of Surge

The nine surges of Obama’s war.

| Thu Dec. 10, 2009 3:30 PM EST

6.  The Base-Building Surge:  Like the surge in contractors and in drone attacks, the surge in base-building in Afghanistan significantly preceded Obama's latest troop-surge announcement.  A recent NBC Nightly News report on the ever-expanding US base at Kandahar Airfield, which it aptly termed a "boom town," shows just how ongoing this part of the overall surge is, and at what a staggering level.  As in Iraq from 2003 on, billions of dollars are being sunk into bases, the largest of which -- especially the old Soviet site, Bagram Air Base, with more than $200 million in construction projects and upgrades underway at the moment -- are beginning to look like ever more permanent fixtures on the landscape. 

In addition, as Nick Turse of TomDispatch.com has reported, forward observation bases and smaller combat outposts have been sprouting all over southern Afghanistan.  "Forget for a moment the ‘debates’ in Washington over Afghan War policy," he wrote in early November, "and, if you just focus on the construction activity and the flow of money into Afghanistan, what you see is a war that, from the point of view of the Pentagon, isn't going to end any time soon. In fact, the US military's building boom in that country suggests that, in the ninth year of the Afghan War, the Pentagon has plans for a far longer-term, if not near-permanent, garrisoning of the country, no matter what course Washington may decide upon."  

7.  The Training Surge:   In some ways, the greatest prospective surge may prove to be in the training of the Afghan national army and police.  Despite years of American and NATO "mentoring," both are in notoriously poor shape.  The Afghan army is riddled with desertions -- 25% of those trained in the last year are now gone -- and the Afghan police are reportedly a hapless, ill-paid, corrupt, drug-addicted lot.  Nonetheless, Washington (with the help of NATO reinforcements) is planning to bring an army whose numbers officially stand at approximately 94,000 (but may actually be as low as 40-odd thousand) to 134,000 reasonably well-trained troops by next fall and 240,000 a year later.  Similarly, the Obama administration hopes to take the police numbers from an official 93,000 to 160,000.

8.  The Cost Surge:  This is a difficult subject to pin down in part because the Pentagon is, in cost-accounting terms, one of the least transparent organizations around.  What can be said for certain is that Obama’s $30 billion figure won’t faintly hold when it comes to the real surge.  There is no way that figure will cover anything like all the troops, bases, contractors, and the rest.  Just take the plan to train an Afghan security force of approximately 400,000 in the coming years.  We’ve already spent more than $15 billion on the training of the Afghan Army and more than $10 billion has gone into police training -- staggering figures for a far smaller combined force with poor results.  Imagine, then, what a massive bulking up of the country's security forces will actually cost.  In congressional testimony, Centcom commander General David Petraeus suggested a possible price tag of $10 billion a year.  And if such a program works (which seems unlikely), try to imagine how one of the poorest countries on the planet will support a 400,000-man force.  Afghan President Hamid Karzai has just suggested that it will take at least 15-20 years before the country can actually pay for such a force itself.  In translation, what we have here is undoubtedly a version of Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule ("You break it, you own it"); in this case, you build it, you own it.  If we create such security forces, they will be, financially speaking, ours into the foreseeable future.  (And this is even without adding in those local militias we’re planning to invest "millions" in.) 

9. The Anti-Withdrawal Surge:  Think of this as a surge in time.  By all accounts, the president tried to put some kind of limit on his most recent Afghan surge, not wanting "an open-ended commitment."  With that in mind, he evidently insisted on a plan, emphasized in his speech, in which some of the surge troops would start to come home in July 2011, about 18 months from now.  This was presented in the media as a case of giving something to everyone (the Republican opposition, his field commanders, and his own antiwar Democratic Party base).  In fact, he gave his commanders and the Republican opposition a very real surge in numbers.  In this regard, a Washington Post headline says it all:  "McChrystal’s Afghanistan Plan Stays Mainly Intact."  On the other hand, what he gave his base was only the vaguest of promises ("…and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011").  Moreover, within hours of the speech, even that commitment was being watered down by the first top officials to speak on the subject.  Soon enough, as the right-wing began to blaze away on the mistake of announcing a withdrawal date "to the enemy," there was little short of a stampede of high officials eager to make that promise ever less meaningful. 

In what Mark Mazzetti of the Times called a "flurry of coordinated television interviews," the top civilian and military officials of the administration marched onto the Sunday morning talk shows "in lockstep" to reassure the right (and they were reassured) by playing "down the significance of the July 2011 target date."  The United States was, Secretary of Defense Gates and others indicated, going to be in the region in strength for years to come.  ("...July 2011 was just the beginning, not the end, of a lengthy process. That date, [National Security Advisor] General [James] Jones said, is a ‘ramp’ rather than a ‘cliff.’")

How Wide the Widening War?

When it came to the spreading Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, the president in his speech spoke of his surge goal this way:  "We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government."  This seems a modest enough target, even if the means of reaching it are proving immodest indeed.  After all, we’re talking about a minority Pashtun insurgency -- Pashtuns make up only about 42% of Afghanistan’s population -- and the insurgents are a relatively lightly armed, rag-tag force.  Against them and a miniscule number of al-Qaeda operatives, the Pentagon has launched a remarkable, unbelievably costly build-up of forces over vast distances, along fragile, extended supply lines, and in a country poorer than almost any other on the planet. The State Department has, to the best of its abilities, followed suit, as has the CIA across the border in Pakistan. 

All of this has been underway for close to a year, with at least another six months to go.  This is the reality that the president and his top officials didn’t bother to explain to the American people in that speech last week, or on those Sunday talk shows, or in congressional testimony, and yet it’s a reality we should grasp as we consider our future and the Afghan War we, after all, are paying for.     

And yet, confoundingly, as the US has bulked up in Afghanistan, the war has only grown fiercer both within the country and in parts of Pakistan.  Sometimes bulking-up can mean not reversing but increasing the other side’s momentum.  We face what looks to be a widening war in the region.  Already, the Obama administration has been issuing ever stronger warnings to the Pakistani government and military to shape up in the fight against the Taliban, otherwise threatening not only drone strikes in Baluchistan, but cross-border raids by Special Operations types, and even possibly "hot pursuit" by US forces into Pakistan.  This is a dangerous game indeed.

As Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power, wrote recently, "Sending US troops to fight interminable wars in distant countries does more to inflame than to extinguish the resentments giving rise to violent anti-Western jihadism."  Whatever the Obama administration does in Afghanistan and Pakistan, however, the American ability to mount a sustained operation of this size in one of the most difficult places on the planet, when it can’t even mount a reasonable jobs program at home, remains a strange wonder of the world.

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