Thursday, December 17, 2009

Make or break surge in Afghanistan

AMONG the army huts clustered on the bleak, windswept outskirts of Kabul is the Counterinsurgency Training Centre, Afghanistan. It is where 50-year-old US special forces colonel John F. Agoglia devises strategy and tactics to deal with a worsening Taliban crisis that by some estimates has put about half of the country at risk of insurgent attack.

"We've done some stupid shit. We focused on terrorism, not governance, and probably realised that about three years ago," the blunt Brooklyn-born officer says.

In 2007, the buzz phrase was "ink spots". It was used by NATO to describe the strategy of deploying combat troops into lawless Taliban-held regions of Afghanistan as a way of winning hearts and minds.

The theory goes like this. Surge enough troops into the badlands, the insurgents disperse and the coalition spots eventually join to form a uniform shade.

Four years later, the hope is still there although the language has changed. Ink spots have given way to constructivist theory.

Depending on who you speak to, the conflict in Afghanistan is an equilateral triangle where war fighting is just one facet of counter-insurgency that is equally dependent on economic development and governance to achieve desired outcomes.

The final shape emerging last week around the International Security Assistance Force headquarters was a hexagon following general agreement on the use of a new buzzword, partnering.

That is the term for joint Afghan-coalition combat operations as US combat troops begin to leave by July 2011. The December 2 announcement of US President Barack Obama's Pakistan-Afghan review was welcomed by US commander of NATO forces Stanley McChrystal. "The clarity, commitment and resolve outlined in the President's address are critical steps towards bringing security to Afghanistan and eliminating terrorist safe havens that threaten regional and global security," McChrystal says.

"The NATO-ISAF objective is equally clear. We will work towards improved security for Afghanistan and the transfer of responsibility to Afghan security forces as rapidly as conditions allow," he tells ISAF commanders.

Two days after the unveiling of the new doctrine to send an extra 30,000 US combat troops into Afghanistan, nowhere were the challenges of achieving Obama's goals more keenly discussed than inside the US-run Counterinsurgency Training Centre, known as COIN.

During the next 18 months, thousands of US combat troops will be deployed in the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, notably the northeast frontier region and former no-go zones in southern Helmand. The first 1500 are due to arrive this week.

Their mission will be to prise away from the Taliban districts under their control, re-establish security and buy time to fast-track training of Afghan security forces while aid and governance experts restore some desperately needed credibility to Hamid Karzai's graft-tainted government.

Nobody, least all of the shadowy figures who inhabit the COIN centre, doubt the immense challenges of the assignment.

More at the Australian

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