Myths and troop surges

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In early 2007, with violence in Iraq spiraling out of control, President Bush announced a surge of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops into the country. By year’s end, the violence had declined markedly and Iraq had been put on a path toward stability.

Fast-forward two years, and President Obama decided on a troop surge for Afghanistan of like proportions. The top U.S. general in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, had asked for up to 40,000 troops to supplement the 68,000 U.S. troops already there.

Another 35,000 troops have been provided by America’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition partners. As Mr. Obama weighed Gen. McChrystal’s troop request, leaked to the public in September, some Republicans accused the administration of dithering. Administration spokesmen replied that the president was taking his time because he wanted to get the decision right after years of drift under his predecessor.

The proposition that a troop surge in Afghanistan would contribute to stabilizing the country, as it did in Iraq, rests on two myths: First, the surge in Iraq caused the population to turn against the insurgents. Second, the conditions that enabled the surge to succeed in Iraq also exist in Afghanistan.

Myth 1: The security gains from the surge in Iraq caused the population to turn against the insurgents. The history of the Iraq war shows that the troop surge in Iraq followed the grass-roots uprising in Al-Anbar province of the Sunnis against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The uprising, also known as the Awakening movement, began in September 2006 with Sheik Sittar albu-Risha.

AQI had overplayed its hand with its heavy-handed imposition of Shariah law and mistreatment of the residents of that majority-Sunni province. Such mistreatment included the summary executions of tribal leaders who opposed AQI and the forced marriages of their daughters to AQI fighters. Sheik Sittar organized a resistance movement that spread across the province and became the Awakening.

Mr. Bush announced the troop surge from the Oval Office on Jan. 10, 2007. The surge involved sending five more Army Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) and their associated support, along with about 4,000 Marines - nearly 30,000 troops in all. The additional five BCTs would make for 20 BCTs deployed in Iraq.

On Feb. 11, 2007, Gen. David H. Petraeus took command of the Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I). That same month, the first surge BCT deployed. The other four BCTs deployed over the next five months. By July, the full surge force was in-country. Insurgent activity began to decline shortly thereafter.

Had there been no Awakening in 2006, the surge might have played out differently in 2007. The violence might not have declined, and Mr. Obama might not have the option of being able to consider shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

That brings up Myth 2, that the conditions that enabled the surge to succeed in Iraq also exist in Afghanistan. There has been no grass-roots Awakening movement in Afghanistan to rival that of Iraq. Nor does the United States have a reliable partner in the Afghanistan government of Hamid Karzai. The writ of the Karzai government hardly extends beyond the capital of Kabul.

The government’s credibility has been badly damaged by charges that it stole the August presidential election. Election observers from the United Nations have reported that the election was marred with fraud on the part of Mr. Karzai’s supporters. A runoff election had been scheduled - until the withdrawal of Mr. Karzai’s challenger, former Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah Abdullah. Now Mr. Karzai appears to have won re-election by default.

Regardless of whether Mr. Karzai or Mr. Abdullah is in charge, Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. Most Afghans live in villages - the country of 28 million is dotted with an estimated 30,000 villages - most of which have little connection with Kabul, due to the country’s forbidding terrain and lack of a modern communications grid.

Authority in those villages is wielded by tribal leaders. Only 28 percent of Afghans over age 15 are literate, according to the CIA World Factbook. (The comparable figure for Iraq is 74 percent.)

Of course, no two countries are identical. But Iraq and Afghanistan are very different. Mr. Obama’s order of a surge of troops into Afghanistan comes under circumstances very different from those of Iraq in 2007.

Christopher Duquette is an economist and spent six months in 2006-07 at Camp Victory in Baghdad with the U.S. military staff that works against improvised explosive devices He is also a Navy veteran of the 1991 Gulf War.

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