January 9, 2010

COIN 101

President Obama has done all he can to sell Afghanistan as an international effort, not just America’s war. He’s also fallen flat, having failed to convince Pakistan to target the Afghan Taliban or India to engage Kashmir, and scrounging up only 7,000 NATO troops to make up for the shortfall of sending 30,000 US troops, 10,000 below General McChrystal's minimum request.

Only 4,500 of those NATO forces will be new to the battlefield.

The unchangeable fact is that Europe doesn’t view Afghanistan as its war, which isn’t Obama’s fault. EU governments are under intense political pressure to disengage, and considering that Obama’s the most popular US president in Europe since John Kennedy, no other candidate could have dragged those NATO troops out either.

But Obama learned the hard way with Abdulmutallab that even if matters lie beyond his control, he still has to face the consequences.

Already stiffed by NATO, the next years of his surge will be dotted with pullouts from ISAF countries, mainly Canada and the Netherlands. Canada will be a particularly heavy blow to US perception of the war because its forces, deployed in Kandahar, were one of the few holding the front lines.

America is set to take over the Taliban heartland upon Canada’s withdrawal, already preparing the transition by flooding Kandahar with US troops.

Canada isn’t alone though in heading for the exit; UK public opposition to Afghanistan has risen above 60%. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, deep in his own domestic hole, has utterly failed to rally Britons with statements like, “The cause that we are fighting comes directly to the streets of Briton. If there is a terrorist threat in Britain,” it is linked to the border areas of Afghanistan.

Ironically 45% of Britons agree - that foreign forces increase international terrorist attacks, but most - 71% - prefer withdrawal within a year. If the present battlefield is any indication of the future, they’re wish might be starting to come true.

Though long in the works, the UK’s plan to cede Helmand’s front-lines to US forces is one more needle in Obama’s eye. The Times reports, “Under the new counter-insurgency strategy of the US General Stanley McChrystal, NATO troops are shifting their focus from fighting the insurgents back towards protecting the population."

“The plan was basically very simple,” said Minna Jarvenpaa, a Finnish consultant, who was one of its architects. “The idea was you secure Lashkar Gah and Gereshk and the road in between them and you create a general area of security there.”

Too bad simple and Afghanistan don’t mix. In the NATO’s specific case, what’s simple becomes rough for America. As NATO troops fall back to the population centers in Kandahar and Helmand, that leaves US troops to shoulder most of the fighting. After all, this is America’s war, and European countries are showing it.

“The timetable for the redeployment will depend on the availability of thousands of US Marines, deploying as part of Mr Obama’s 30,000-strong surge, as well as the Afghan forces who would accompany them,” says the Times. “But if it is approved British Forces could leave for the last time when the current six-month deployment starts to leave this spring.”

With Canada and the UK set to fall back to the population centers and ultimately withdraw from the country entirely, US forces will assume almost total control of the front lines in Afghanistan. More NATO troops wouldn't have solved this problem since they wouldn’t be ordered to the front-lines anyway.

Casualties will become predominantly US when Obama’s surge ratchets up the war, further dragging down opinion in America and compounding the White House’s ability to sell Afghanistan to the America people, which negatively impacts the ability to wage a successful counterinsurgency.

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