On the Afghan ‘surge’


A US soldier stands against the Afghan skyline after securing a combat outpost in Rajankala in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. US Air Force photo by Tech. Sergeant Francisco V. Govea II..

I haven’t had much time to comment on the Afghan “surge” and President Obama’s speech over the past 24 hours because I’ve been busy with interviews for radio (with my friends John Batchelor, and Brett Winterble of Covert Radio fame who subbed for Roger Hedgecock last night) and TV (Dawn News, NDTV 24×7, and NewsX), as well as working with The New York Times on a graphic of Taliban control/influence in Afghanistan. I wrote a short summary for NRO’s The Corner last night as well, which you can read here. There has been plenty of commentary on the speech and the strategy. Here is my brief $.02:

• The number of troops, 30,000 US soldiers and Marines plus an undetermined number of troops from NATO, is short of the 40,000 requested by General McChrystal, but close enough to what he requested to be acceptable to the military. My sources tell me this is about the maximum number that can be sustained given the current logistical constraints in Afghanistan anyway.

• As I briefly explained at The Corner, setting the time line for withdrawal is a big mistake. It encourages the Taliban, reinforces to the Pakistanis that we are seeking the exit, and sends the absolutely wrong message to the Afghan people.

• The message to the Afghan people was muddled at best. President Obama told them their security is paramount, but then said that the US goal of destroying al Qaeda takes precedence. This conflicting message, along with the signals that the US seeks the exit, will not sit well with Afghan fence sitters, and weakens our ability to demonstrate resolve.

• Currently there are not nearly enough Afghan forces for the US to transfer control by July 2011, when President Obama said the US drawdown will begin. Even if the training is accelerated, there won’t be enough Afghan troops, and the acceleration will sacrifice quality.

• Given the troop shortage, this indicates the US will depend on the tribal militias, called arbakai, to take control of areas. My sources tell me the program is having good success in Helmand and Kandahar, and in other areas as well. These units may be integrated into the police and Afghan National Army. A big question is whether this will be politically acceptable to the Karzai administration.

• The focus of the troops will be in the South and East. US/NATO Troops will largely be withdrawn from remote areas, then slowly be expanded outward to retake control of regions under Taliban control. This is reasonable from the military’s standpoint, but endangers anyone in those areas who cooperated with ISAF or the Afghan government.

• There will be offensive operations to hit the Taliban in their strongholds. Marja and Bahgram in Helmand will be main targets, as will Haqqani Network bases in the East (Paktia, Paktika, and Khost). People seem to forget that a major reason the Iraqi “surge” succeeded was that US troops paired up with Iraqi forces to immediately take on al Qaeda in Iraq and allied Sunni insurgent groups, and the Mahdi Army in the “Baghdad Belts,” the regions around the capital. Once these terror groups were smashed, there were sufficient Iraqi forces available to transition security. A similar effort is needed in Afghanistan, but it is unclear at the moment just how this will unfold.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • m3fd2002 says:

    Thanks for the summary. I unfortunately agree with your assessment about the time-line.Not only does it send a weak message to the afghani people, who are very cognizant of a possible Taliban return, but I believe it sends a poor message to our combat troops in theater. The Taliban will capitalize on this by re-enforcing their confidence and ranks. Unfortunately, it most likely will cost more coalition lives than necessary. The body language of the cadets was cool at best. Putting a dollar price on victory is unbelievable. I knew that he would make it an economic decision. This after throwing $1.5 trillion at the financial markets. The soldiers in the field will be thinking that their efforts may be in vain, compromising performance.I hope not.I’m getting the same feeling I had when Carter threw the Shah of Iran to the wolves.

  • Dan says:

    I read a commentary in May of 2008 that talked about how long it took to turn everything back over to the Germans after WWII. I believe it wasn’t until 1955 that the German army and air force were stood back up, and another three years before the German Navy was. 13 years total.
    My memory may be a little faulty, but I think the Western allies wanted to make sure they had a chance to have two or three elections completed so the people would get in the habit of controlling their government before standing a military back up. The reason being that they didn’t want to tempt anyone from  .misusing their new military and creating another dictatorship.
    Like I said, my memory could be wrong, but being in too big a hurry could come back and bite us.

  • Mr T says:

    Bill, You are so correct. You are an expert on the long war and very knowledgable. Obama making decisions that don’t jibe with your expert opinion is troubling.
    Dan is right to point out the Germany analogy and I think the civil war in the US had similar long term recovery implications. Japan also and probably most wars in history.

  • Armchair Warlord says:

    That a drawdown plan would be in place by the middle of 2011 sounds pretty reasonable to me. Obama made it very clear that this all depends on realities on the ground and standing up effective Afghan forces to take the lead in operations. Considering that exactly that happened over an identical timeframe in Iraq talking about some reduction in forces and transition to overwatch by 2011 is pretty reasonable. This is a timeline contingent on victory.
    What I think a lot of people forget is exactly how militarized the Obama administration is and the excellent military team that he has put together. If you think Gates, Petraeus, Jones, Shinseki, McChrystal and the whole rest of the crowd would tolerate an impractical war plan being put into place, you’re insane.
    The message to the Afghan people on our resolve is, “We will be here until your own government replaces us.” End of story. Obama said that pretty bluntly.
    I have great faith and confidence in our leadership and the US military’s ability to accomplish any mission given to it. The Taliban are going to lose this war.

  • tyrone says:

    The timeline is unreasonable. Can’t be met. But it may be political cover so the Democrats in Congress can sign off on the plan. Then, when more time is needed, in a year or so, we will already be in the middle of it and the picture of what is at stake will be clearer to the American people. Then extend it by a year. Then another. Until the Afghani’s have a military and police capable of standing up without us (5 years?).
    We will see …

  • Dan A says:

    With the increase in US troops and the final turning out of effective Afghan troops (at least some of them), hopefully progress can begin to be made on the kinetic side. The problem is that in order to begin to turn the tide, real work has to be done on the Afghan government side as well as real action on the Pakistani side, which remains unclear.
    It looks to me like the inkspot surrounding Kabul is beginning to see solid progress in Wardak, Logar, and Kapisa(?). In Helmand, at least it looks like progress is being made in the places we’ve been able to hold. Kandahar is a mess, but hopefully with the reinforcements the situation can be stabilized and we can establish an inkspot.
    If we can begin to turn the tide in the south, keep the eastern border contested, solidify and grow the Kabul inkspot, and the north and west don’t explode, it seems to me that we can again gain the upper hand. The kinetic side on the Afghan border is looking like they’re on the necessary path. It really is now up to the GoISA and Pakistan to step up. Without all three of those elements, victory may be impossible. But I believe there is renewed hope.

  • T Ruth says:

    A lot of people appear worried on whether the long-war can be shoe-horned into a tight short surge and victory.
    Also many are concerned of the depth of the strategy re Pakistan, given that it is clear to Obama (and everyone else, except the Pakistanis) that Pak is the home/HQ of al-Qaida.
    I’m sure no one is more accutely aware of the detail of intricacies involved than Obama.
    On the timeline of withdrawal, he said:
    “Taken together, 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.”
    1. ‘begin…in July 2011’. Begin means begin. It doesn’t declare how many, who and at what pace. And it certainly doesn’t mean end.
    2. As Armchair Warlord points out there are lots of caveats which operate based on the reality of the time.
    3. Obama said begin the ‘transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan’. That doesn’t necessarily mean bring them home…it could also mean transfer them into Pakistan if thats what it takes!
    Good subtle msg to Pak who must be squirming at this overall up-the-ante approach.
    4. AQ and the Taliban must be idiots if they don’t understand the politics of war; if they think that after all this the US is going to hand them AfPak on a platter.
    Hats off to Obama for his articulation. Of course he has the whole spectrum of constituencies to carry, domestically. And like any good leader he’s taking risks. He expects for the US to be in a vastly different/better position in 18 months. If he has the results he’s betting on, he will have the American people behind him and his team, even if it means asking for more time.
    5. July 2011 puts a healthy degree of pressure on the Army (and on Afghanistan) to tweak the coefficient of efficiency and deliver.

  • Bungo says:

    For the life of me I still don’t understand how you (Bill) and the Obama aedministration continue to ignore, for the most part, the elephant in the room which is Pakistan. This is even more glaring when the administration says that attacking Al Queda is (one of) their major goals(s). You can’t even scratch Al Queda without going into their sanctuaries in “tribal” Pakistan. Where is the reality here? What will be our policy concerning the Taliban and Al Quedas living in virtual plain sight in Pakistan? The War is in Pakistan gentlemen. Afghanistan is a suckers fight. And by the way, what country today, in 2010, still has un-governable “Tribal” areas!?! Unbelievable! I know they’ve heard of trains and the telegraph. This is just plain laziness.

  • Bungo says:

    For the life of me I still don’t understand how you (Bill) and the Obama aedministration continue to ignore, for the most part, the elephant in the room which is Pakistan. This is even more glaring when the administration says that attacking Al Queda is (one of) their major goals(s). You can’t even scratch Al Queda without going into their sanctuaries in “tribal” Pakistan. Where is the reality here? What will be our policy concerning the Taliban and Al Quedas living in virtual plain sight in Pakistan? The War is in Pakistan gentlemen. Afghanistan is a suckers fight. And by the way, what country today, in 2010, still has un-governable “Tribal” areas!?! Unbelievable! I know they’ve heard of trains and the telegraph. This is just plain laziness.

  • Let me make an observation on the Iraq surge that has often been overlooked. I have discussed it in my new book.
    Decades of Saddam’s rule has undermined the power and credibility of political Islam in Iraq (meaning the influence of clerics and the use of Islam as rallying point by extremists).
    A number of empirical observations point to even Sunni Iraqis turning their back on Islamic extremists for the above reason.
    To a large part, this played a role in many Sheiks aligning with the U.S. and help put an end to the insurgency in Iraq. Of course, the extra troops provided by the surge too was helpful, as was the U.S. “funding” this switch in allegiance by the Sheiks.
    Another way of putting it is that political Islam is not particularly powerful in Iraq, as it is in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
    Second, literacy in Afghanistan is around 25 percent, compared to about 70 percent in Iraq.
    One can’t build a “well-behaving” army with 25 percent literacy. It will take generations, even with best of resources and commitments.
    The war on terror really is a war on political Islam. It requires completely different strategy, away from occupation.
    Occupation does little to weaken the standing of political Islam.
    There are better ways!

  • pedestrian says:

    Hehe, you know something that you are not suppose to know Bill Rogio.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Bungo said: “For the life of me I still don’t understand how you (Bill) and the Obama aedministration continue to ignore, for the most part, the elephant in the room which is Pakistan.”
    Thanks for the huge laugh Bungo. Yes, I clearly ignore Pakistan as being the major part of the problem. In fact, I don’t even bother with covering Pakistan here.
    [For those who weren’t sure that is sarcasm.]
    When President Obama announced the highly-touted “AfPAk strategy” in March, here was item #1 on the list:
    Analysis: The United States has attempted to provide financial and military inducements to the Pakistani government to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda in the tribal areas and Baluchistan province for more than seven years. Since 2001, the US has provided over $10 billion in aid to Pakistan. Billions of dollars of this aid is unaccounted for. The US has conducted more than 50 airstrikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas as well as several ground raids in an effort to dismantle al Qaeda and Taliban leadership and training nodes. These actions, which have a destabilizing effect on the Pakistani government, have failed to push the Pakistani military to take action on its own.
    During this time, the Taliban have taken over most of the Northwest Frontier Province, often via negotiations with the government. Quetta remains the location of the Taliban’s executive leadership council, while the greater Baluchistan province hosts scores of training camps and recruitment centers, and large swaths are under Taliban control. Elements within Pakistan’s intelligence service and the military continue to actively support the Taliban and other terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba.
    It is difficult to see how a boost in military and economic support will push Pakistan into taking on Islamist extremists head on. Here, the devil is in the details, and few details are forthcoming at this time.
    Or perhaps you might want to read Pakistan’s Jihad:
    I could go on but won’t because its really kinda silly to do so. I was addressing the specifics of the Afghan ‘surge’ – the elements of the strategy within Afghanistan. I have said time and time again that Afghanistan is merely a holding action while Pakistan is sorted out. Its another reason why setting a timeline is silly.

  • Bungo says:

    With all due respect I was referring primarily to the Pres’ recent Afghan Decision address and your quick critique. I waqs not trying to ignore the mountain of information you have written about the situation in Pakistan. In this regard you have no equal. Kudos to you and I hope you continue to bring us the latest and most comprehensive Long War news.
    My beef was that the Pres said absolutely Nothing new concerning our position with Pakistan. Unless there is some new secret deal that we are unaware of we will continue to be frustrated by an “ally” which has several competing interests, very few of which correspond with ours. As long as all Taliban groups and all Al Quedas have a safe haven in Pakistan anything we do in Afghanistan is moot.
    My proposal is thus : If Pakistan insists that they cannot be responsible for the terrorists, insurgents, psycopaths et. al. living openly in the Tribal areas because these regions are “ungovernable” then I contend that they, at that point, relinquish any claim of soverignty over these areas and that they could arguably be “up for grabs” as far as an international court goes. The Pak government freely admits that they have absolutely no control or governance in these areas. Since there are innumerable foreign terrorists and insurgents in these ungovernable frontier zones who threaten the security of several foreign countries and regularly illegally cross international borders to perpetrate their mayhem the international community and specifically those threatened countries have every to insert as many troops asw necessary in any manner they wish to pacify the “ungovernable Tribal / Frontier” regions. In other words Pakistan CANNOT have it both ways. They can’t say they can’t do anything about these murderers and at the same time dissallow anyone from going in and cleaning up what they won’t. This, after all, is where some of the worst killers and terrorists in the world are living in comfort. This is a slap in the face of all civilized nations. This cannot stand. It’s time for this adminitrstion to call out the hypocritical stance of Pakistan and take the Tribal Areas down and end this Long, Long War once and for all.

  • Render says:

    Heck, it’s not even a “surge” per say…
    It’s just the standard rotation of units that’s been authorized. Unless units are going to be held beyond their scheduled tour dates, (highly unlikely with a pre-announced exit plan), when the new units arrive the total numbers will stay about the same.


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