Belmont Club

Retreat to Afghanistan

It wasn’t supposed to be this wayThe relationship between operations in Iraq and Afghanistan is recognized by the fact that one commander is strategically in charge of both. General David Petraeus was recently confirmed as CENTCOM CINC, placing him in overall charge of military operations both in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. That Iraq and Afghanistan are linked — both part of one big war rather than two separate and independent conflicts — should not seriously be in doubt. The average Jihadi sees both as battlefronts as a single campaign against America. The Times Online recently reported on how the “lions of Islam” were falling back on Afghanistan/Pakistan after their defeat in Iraq:

Afghanistan is replacing Iraq as the destination of choice for international jihadists, Western intelligence agencies claim. Analysts have monitored a surge in online recruitment of “lions of Islam” to join the war in Afghanistan through jihadist websites, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Chechnya and Turkey, in the past year.

That is now being matched by evidence of an increase in foreign fighters entering Afghanistan, mostly from training bases established in the lawless Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) of Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Brian Glyn Williams, who researches jihadist websites for the Combating Terrorism Centre at the US military academy at West Point, told The Times that jihadist websites across the Middle East had shown a huge increase in the number of epitaphs for foreign fighters killed in Afghanistan in recent months. They have also reflected the despair of many al-Qaeda followers at the reverses the group has suffered in Iraq since the Sunni Awakening, an alliance of US forces with previously anti-government Sunni militias that turned against al-Qaeda, particularly in the province of Anbar. … “Iraq is seen as a defeat. The image of Afghanistan is seen as a more pristine jihad.”

In the debate over whether America should have focused its initial response on uprooting al-Qaeda from Southwest Asia, one thing should not be forgotten. From it’s inception al-Qaeda’s center of gravity has been the the Middle East. It was the source of its money, leadership, ideology and manpower. Afghanistan’s importance from the beginning lay in what it could provide Bin Laden in terms of prestige he could parlay into into influence in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

The strategic value of land-locked, impoverished Afghanistan to the Jihad was as a symbol rather than a geopolitical prize. The image of Jihadis defeating the Soviet Army was the ultimate source of al-Qaeda’s credibility; something that could prise money, men and political authority from their home front, treasury and recruitment depot. Given a choice between giving up Afghanistan and repeating reprising the defeat of a superpower in Iraq, al Qaeda would have clearly preferred the latter. This does not mean that Afghanistan is strategically unimportant, but it was always secondary to the Middle East

Having been very publicly ousted from the critical Middle East, al-Qaeda and its allies probably hope they can rebuild their political fortunes and retrieve their legend in Southwest Asia. Unlike the period immediately after 9/11, when al-Qaeda was regarded as burgeoning force, the rereat to Afghanistan is fundamentally defensive in character one which preserves the possibility of future victory rather than representing an advance in itself. As long as the Jihad can hold out against the US coalition, even if they cannot regain Kabul, survival in a sufficiently distant place where they can plausibly claim miracles and victories unfalsifiable by direct experience might let them live to rise another day.

But since it will be a do-or-die effort, the international Jihad’s return to Afghanistan suggests that the struggle there will enter a new phase. A recent article in the Australian noted that “General Petraeus said that after intense US assaults in Iraq, al-Qa’ida was looking to shift focus to its original home base in Afghanistan, where American casualties are running higher than in Iraq. ‘We do think that there is some assessment ongoing as to the continued viability of al-Qa’ida’s fight in Iraq,’ General Petraeus said.” Conflicts have a way of changing their character in response to enemy responses. The Korean war changed course with the Chinese intervention; post-Saddam Iraq took a new turn when Iran and al-Qaeda entered the fray; so it is only reasonable to expect conditions in Southwest Asia to change as the enemy concentrates his forces there.

“We do know the foreign fighter flow into Iraq has been reduced very substantially,” General Petraeus said. “They’re not going to abandon Iraq. They’re not going to write it off. None of that. But what they certainly may do is start to provide some of those resources that would have come to Iraq to Pakistan, possibly Afghanistan.”

The comments came as Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was to hold a “showdown” with US President George W.Bush in Washington over what is now regarded as the out of control situation in the country, with al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in charge of vast swaths of territory.

Washington has spoken of the Pakistan Government being “dysfunctional” and analysts believe Mr Bush will “read the riot act” to Mr Gilani.

But these changes are signs of strategic development in the War on Terror, not symptoms of a quagmire. The emphasis and intensity of conflict will shift according to the changes in fortune. There is a sad tendency among commentators to think that simply because events don’t conform to initial planning that things have gone irretrievably awry. In that mindset wars are fought according to a schedule, with a predetermined “exit plan” or else they are defeats. In reality the combatants reassess their position and redeploy accordingly as the situation evolves.

Although Iraq provided many lessons, each battlefield is different. With al-Qaeda sheltering in its Pakistani sanctuaries getting at them will be challenging. Items cited in the Australian article suggest that even describing the conflict as the war in ‘Afghanistan’ is partly a misnomer. Much of the war is frankly in Pakistan.

One Kabul-based Western diplomat, who did not want to be named, said: “There is a change with an increase in attacks in the east [along the Pakistan border] and more chatter of foreign voices is being detected.” … Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters: “There are clearly more foreign fighters in the Fata than have been there in the past. What that really speaks to is that’s a safe haven and it’s got to be eliminated for all insurgents, not just al-Qaeda.

How to “elminate” the safe haven is being debated within strategic circles. Given the many factors which went into defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq — an effort which included raising an indigenous army, sponsoring elections, going after enemy leadership, cutting lines of logistics and providing more security — it is unsurprising that the services are still squabbling about their relative contribution to the US victory in Iraq. “Jon” Compton at the Small Wars Journal Blog sat down with an assistant to former Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and talked about why the Surge worked. The standard narrative is that it worked because the ground forces had been reinforced by 20%. Not surprisingly the Air Force had another theory.

Taken at face value, all we ever needed in Iraq was an extra 20% troop strength and we’d have had the place stabilized years ago. Unfortunately the penetrating analysis of CNN only goes about that far, but the more discerning among us know that that cannot possibly be the whole story.

But the Army hasn’t helped the perception. According to them, those extra boots on the ground was all that it took to better stabilize the country. Patreus has even said as much in his testimony to congress and in the reports he’s signed off on in the field. So here is where Rick drops the bomb.

Rick’s office was unconvinced. So they initiated an investigation to see exactly what had changed, other than boots on the ground. As is turned out, not only had the number of troops on the ground increased by 20%, but air strike missions had also increased by 400%. What’s more, air munitions released had increased by over 1000%, all since the beginning of the surge.

What had changed was clear. It wasn’t the extra boots on the ground that was turning the tide, it was the increase in HUMINT and the ability to hit a target with precision munitions from the air within a time frame of only 7 minutes. Gatherings as small as only 3 insurgents were being targeted for strikes, while predators and forces on the ground monitored the movements of any suspected insurgent. This aggressive doctrinal change was preventing insurgents from gathering, planning, and pulling off operations. It was classic COIN (Counterinsurgency) operations, conducted almost entirely from the air. But if we accept the Army’s version of things, it never happened.

Perhaps one day the Air Force will commission a modern-day equivalent of the Strategic Bombing Survey. But I suspect that like most historical events, we will never know precisely why things happened; why the Surge worked the way it did, any more than we will know whether it was the Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force that really won World War 2. We may have to be contented with the simple realization that something did work and move on with that imperfect knowledge in pursuit of the retreating enemy in Southwest Asia.


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