Is the Surge the Right Model?

Much of the discussion about what to do in Afghanistan occurs in front of the backdrop of the Surge in Iraq and its success. Indeed, over the weekend, Sen. John McCain repeated the claim that a new Surge is needed in Afghanistan, that half-measures will spell defeat, and that t here is no way "to win" without sending 40,000 more troops. There are several problems with this line of reasoning.

First, this weekend saw more than an interview with Senator McCain. It saw three bomb blasts in Ramadi, Iraq that were evidently targeted not just at government buildings, but specifically at Iraqis who had helped make the Surge a success. The number of such bomb blasts has certainly decreased, but it is unclear if the relative calm will long survive and American departure. Remember, the purpose of the Surge was not merely to lower the levels of violence. The goal was to create a less violent atmosphere in which Iraqis could begin to adjudicate their rival claims through political means. Many of the outstanding political issues that face Iraq are still outstanding. And, there are still tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground. We hope the future will see fewer bombings of the type that killed 19 and wounded almost one hundred people in Ramadi. But, as the Republicans never tire of reminding us, hope is not the same thing as a result.

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Second, Afghanistan is not Iraq. While Iraq was never a nation the way France is a nation, more of an oil field with a flag than a homogenous population, Iraq was nonetheless modern in ways Afghanistan is not. Afghanistan is, in many ways, mired in an earlier century. Its ways are pre-modern, its roads non-existent, its infrastructure primitive. While both countries rely heavily on tribal linkages for the allotment of political power, in Afghanistan there has never been a tradition of a strong central government, tyrannical or otherwise. Even the Taliban did not exert total control over the entire country although they came the closest because their views were not found outrageous or medieval by that nation’s inhabitants. Trying to make peace there and to establish a strong central government will require pulling the culture into modernity, a task that seems even more impossible than nation-building in Iraq.

Third, and in some ways, most problematic, is that no one really knows what it means "to win" in Afghanistan and neither Democrats nor Republicans are doing much more than use the phrase as an incantation. If it is clear that Jeffersonian democracy is not going to burst forth from the mountains of Afghanistan, if women are to be systematically denied access to education, if the operative choices for Afghanis are corruption or Sharia, what is "victory" to look like? Keeping the terrorists on the run? Building some measure of central government control? How much control?

It is not wisdom to say we need to send 40,000 more troops without bothering to answer these difficult questions. It is insanity. The Surge is not the answer to every question. The Surge may not even have been the long-term answer for Iraq that Sen. McCain thinks it is. But, before we embrace McCain’s tactical solution, we need to ask – and ask first – what our strategic objectives are in Afghanistan. Then, and only then, can we know if 40,000 troops will help achieve that objective or not. McCain has put the cart before the horse. The bombings in Ramadi counsel against short-sightedness.

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