Why Obama's troop surge won't work

It is crazy to think Afghan security forces can help

Barack Obama's decision to send 30,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan -- and Gordon Brown's decision to send 500 additional UK troops -- is predicated on the idea that, eventually, the Afghan security forces will pick up the slack.

Here is Obama, speaking last night at the US Military Academy at West Point:

We must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces and government so that they can take lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future . . . These additional American and international troops will allow us to accelerate handing over responsibility to Afghan forces, and allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 . . . it will be clear to the Afghan government -- and, more importantly, to the Afghan people -- that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.

And here is Brown, speaking in the Commons on Monday:

Taking into account those special forces, their supporting troops and the increases announced today, our total military effort in Afghanistan will be in excess of 10,000 troops. That force level enables us to deliver our military strategy of bringing security to the population . . . It will accelerate the development of the Afghan army and police, so that in time they can take over responsibility for security and thus ensure that our troops can come home.

But as I wrote in my piece on counter-insurgency theory, or "Coin", last week:

. . . the Afghan National Army is plagued by desertion: 10,000 recruits have disappeared in recent months. Soldiers are under-equipped and underpaid; some 15 per cent of them are thought to be drug addicts. Dominated by Tajik troops from the north of the country, the "national" army has little or no credibility in the southern, Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, where the Taliban mainly operate, and from where they draw ethnic support.

Meanwhile, the Afghan police, one member of whom shot dead five British soldiers on 3 November, are prone to infiltration and corruption and lack proper training. They have lost roughly 1,500 staff to insurgent violence this year and around 10,000 policemen are absent without leave.

The idea that Afghan security forces can play a significant, substantive or credible role in the counter-insurgency strategy is ludicrous. But as the Associated Press reports:

Obama's plan emphasises stepped-up training for Afghan forces, a goal aimed at speeding the handover of the nation's security to Afghan security forces.

Lt Gen William B Caldwell, the new head of a US-Nato command responsible for training and developing Afghan soldiers and police, said Tuesday that although the groundwork is being laid to expand the Afghan National Army beyond the current target of 134,000 troops by 31 October 2010, no fixed higher target has been set. There is a notional goal of eventually fielding 240,000 soldiers and 160,000 police, but Caldwell said that could change.

"Although that is a goal and where we think it could eventually go to, it's not a hard, firm, fixed number," he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.

For now, Caldwell's orders are to reach the targets of 134,000 soldiers and 96,800 police by next October.

Are these people delusional? Or simply disingenuous? As John Kerry, the former presidential candidate who is chair of the influential Senate foreign relations committee, confessed in a recent speech at the Council on Foreign Relations:

The current goal is to increase the number of trained Afghan National Army troops from 92,000 to 134,000 by December of 2011. And General McChrystal is reportedly trying to complete that within the next year.

Despite the 92,000 number, I will tell you that most of the assessments I got told me that we're really considerably lower -- that today, at 50,000, maybe even less range of those who can actually work in the way that we desire.

Writing in the current issue of Military Review, the security expert Professor Thomas Johnson and the former US state department official Chris Mason put the figure even lower and accuse politicians and the generals of presenting misleading statistics:

The Pentagon continues to put out the (true but irrelevant) figure of 90,000 ANA [Afghan National Army] soldiers "trained and equipped" since May 2002, not mentioning that perhaps 32,000 combat troops remain present for duty today . . . ANA recruit quality is poor, virtually all are illiterate, readiness is low even by the lenient standards imposed by pressure to show progress, and drug use is a large and growing problem. Behind the smoke and mirrors, the "official" annual desertion rate is down from a high in 2005 of 30 per cent to "only" 10 per cent, but the AWOL definition hides a lot of the desertion. Re-enlistment is below 50 per cent, so with five-year contracts, another 12 per cent of the force quits every year. With casualties, sickness, etc, 25 per cent of the ANA evaporates annually. The army knows the ANA cannot ever grow larger than 100,000 men, double its present size, because before then annual accession will equal annual losses.

"Projections of a 134,000-man force by 2010," they conclude, "or a 240,000-man ANA in the future are absurd."

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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