In the Arena

Afghanistan is not Anbar

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The latest news coming out of Afghanistan is not good. There is likely to be a second round of voting in the presidential race, which will keep the government in flux and U.S. troops preoccupied for at least another month–and the results of any election will be questioned because of the semi-successful Taliban suppression of the vote in the Pashtun-majority south.

Then, there is the military situation. This report details the problems the US Marines are having in crucial Helmand province:

Frustrated, Governor Massoud said his “government is weak and cannot provide agricultural officials, school officials, prosecutors and judges.”

He said he was promised 120 police officers, but only 50 showed up. He said many were untrustworthy and poorly trained men who stole from the people, a description many of the Americans agree with. No more than 10 percent appear to have attended a police academy, they say. “Many are just men from the streets,” the governor said.

The Afghan National Army contingent appears sharper — even if only one-sixth the size that Governor Massoud said he was promised — but the soldiers have resisted some missions because they say they were sent not to fight, but to recuperate.

“We came here to rest, then we are going somewhere else,” said Lt. Javed Jabar Khail, commander of the 31-man unit. The Marines say they hope the next batch of Afghan soldiers will not be expecting a holiday.

This puts a serious dent in the hope that the same sort of counter-insurgency tactics that worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan. Here’s the problem: In the Sunni triangle, the local tribes were willing to switch sides because they’d had enough of the Al Qaeda taqfiris, who were mostly foreigners, in any case. In Helmand, the rebels are indigenous Afghans–many of them criminal elements involved in the drug traffic. Any attempt to pacify the area will fail unless there is a credible Afghan civil and military presence offering the local people security, a plausible justice system and the promise of economic development. (And remember, Helmand is an order of magnitude poorer than Anbar–the literacy rate is probably less than 10%.)

No doubt, the US military and diplomatic corps are conducting constant appraisals of the strategy. I’d be curious to know–and intend to find out–what they think the current options are and what the next steps should be. But this doesn’t look good at all.