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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Zac Goldsmith has bitten off more than he can chew

In standing as an independent, Goldsmith may face the worst of both worlds. 

After just 48 years, we can announce the very late arrival of the third runway at Heathrow. Assuming, that is, that it makes its way past the legal challenge from five local councils and Greenpeace, the consultation with local residents, and the financial worries of the big airlines. And that's not counting the political struggles...

While the Times leads with the logistical headaches - "Heathrow runway may be built over motorway" is their splash, the political hurdles dominate most of this morning’s papers

"Tory rebels let fly on Heathrow" says the i's frontpage, while the FT goes for "Prominent Tories lead challenge to May on Heathrow expansion". Although Justine Greening, a May loyalist to her fingertips, has limited herself to a critical blogpost, Boris Johnson has said the project is "undeliverable" and will lead to London becoming "a city of planes". 

But May’s real headache is Zac Goldsmith, who has quit, triggering a by-election in his seat of Richmond Park, in which he will stand as an anti-Heathrow candidate.  "Heathrow forces May into Brexit by-election" is the Telegraph's splash. 

CCHQ has decided to duck out of the contest entirely, leaving Goldsmith running as the Conservative candidate in all but name, against the Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney. 

What are Goldsmith's chances? To win the seat, the Liberal Democrats would need a 19.3 per cent swing from the Conservatives - and in Witney, they got exactly that.

They will also find it easier to squeeze the third-placed Labour vote than they did in Witney, where they started the race in fourth place. They will find that task all the easier if the calls for Labour to stand aside are heeded by the party leadership. In any case, that Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy and Jonathan Reynolds have all declared that they should will be a boost for Olney even if she does face a Labour candidate.  

The Liberal Democrats are fond of leaflets warning that their rivals “cannot win here” and thanks to Witney they have one ready made.  

Goldsmith risks having the worst of all worlds. I'm waiting to hear whether or not the Conservatives will make their resources freely available to Goldsmith, but it is hard to see how, without taking an axe to data protection laws, he can make use of Conservative VoterID or information gathered in his doomed mayoral campaign. 

But in any case, the Liberal Democrats will still be able to paint him as the Brexit candidate and the preferred choice of the pro-Heathrow Prime Minister, as he is. I think Goldsmith will find he has bitten more than he can chew this time.

This article originally appeared in today's Morning Call, your essential email covering everything you need to know about British politics and today's news. You can subscribe for free here.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.