The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

In defence of surging?

Abu Muqawama argues that the surge in Iraq worked, contrary to the seemingly widely-held opinion that it succeeded tactically but failed strategically. He bases his opinion on the following definition of the objectives of a military intervention:

“We intervene in … a conflict in order to establish a condition in which the political objective can be achieved by other means and in other ways. We seek to create a conceptual space for diplomacy, economic incentives, political pressure and other measures to create a desired political outcome of stability, and if possible democracy.” (General Rupert Smith)

In other words, a military intervention (surge included) can only create the conditions for the successful establishment of an indigenous political process. A military intervention can not and should not successfully create the political process itself. Therefore an imperfect political process does not mean the surge in Iraq did not work.

In that light, what conclusions can we draw on the ongoing 'surge' in Afghanistan? I stress ongoing because let us remind ourselves that not all of the extra 37,000 ISAF troops have actually been deployed yet. Very far from it.

It is very, very early to draw any meaningful conclusions given that the 'clear' phase of Operation Moshtarak has barely been completed in Helmand and has not even begun in Kandahar. However, time is short and some questions must be asked now.

Perhaps Smith's definition serves as a timely yardstick for what we should realistically expect from ISAF this summer? Perhaps it also could serve as a timely wake-up call to other international actors to get their act together and do their bit to fill the newly-created conceptual space?

Alternatively, perhaps even these objectives are too ambitious in the context of Afghanistan? Perhaps the international community simply does not agree on a common definition of the conceptual space? Perhaps Smith's definition is faulty or just plain wrong?


  1. NB: Abu Muqawama has updated his original post following feedback from certain people, notably Nora Bensahel of Rand. See her astute observation in the comments section.

  2. My comment on the ABU Muqawama blog:
    I see not much evidence that sending in another 30.000 troops was the decisive element of the "Surge". Nor will it make a difference in Afghanistan. Sure, having more troops is always helpful, but not necessarily for the strategic success of the operation. On this I agree with Petraeus who claims in his book that a ratio of 20-25 soldiers by 1000 locals is required to maintain stability.

    BTW, Wesley Clark also stressed that the success of the surge is due to other factors than the increase in troops. Check out his interview on the Daily Show. He says that the positive developments in Al Anbar where not caused and unrelated by the increase of troop levels.

    Therefore, Andrew, it would probably be more helpful to show a graph that indicates where the casualties of sectarian violence occurred, and where the "surge"-troops were deployed. Such a graph would show the validity of your claim that the "surge" worked.

    The "surge" as a success story makes more sense if one takes the US/Western audience as a target, rather than the situation on the ground in Iraq: Sending in more troops, winning some important battles and gradually withdrawing. I think that is the pattern that we are currently seeing in AFG as well. The troop levels already started to increase, the first 'victory' in Marjah has already been won, the next 'victory'-operation in Kandahar already started. All to set the scene for the inevitable downsizing of US forces in AFG.