Afghanistan needs new mindset

2009-12-02 17:07

Baghdad - A marked increase in troops and a new strategy helped the US turn the tide of the Iraq war but success also hinged on dividing their enemies, analysts warned Wednesday, ahead of a similar Afghan "surge".

An extra five army brigades - 30 000 troops - were deployed to Iraq from February 2007 to stem deteriorating security and they played a key role in reversing the bloody insurgency that was at the time engulfing the country.

With US President Barack Obama now ordering an additional 30 000 soldiers to stabilise similarly conflict-wracked Afghanistan, however, International Crisis Group senior analyst Peter Harling argues that military power alone is not enough.

The increase in troop levels in Iraq "would not have had the same impact had the US clung to the same, failed approach of pursuing armed groups regardless of the cost to their human environment," he told AFP.

The abandonment of a simplistic 'search and destroy' mindset to a twin-track policy that also aimed to protect the Iraqi population ensured the surge's success in 2007, according to Harling.


"A mere change of mindset would have been ineffective: over-stretched US forces needed those extra resources to become more flexible... and most importantly to hold the ground after clearing it of insurgent activity," he said.

The Iraqi government's own figures showed more than 2 000 people died as a result of violence in January 2007, when then president George W Bush announced the surge.

Attacks now have dropped dramatically; to the point where violent deaths were last month around five percent of the January 2007 toll.

The Pentagon hopes to see similar success in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is mounting a bloody insurgency across the nation, just as Sunni fighters linked to al-Qaeda were doing across Iraq in 2007.

"We can say quite definitively that the surge operation was a success - the best indication is a decrease in violence in Iraq," said Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

"The decrease is substantial and ongoing and, so far, success is clear."

US troops are now gradually pulling out of Iraq, with the 115 000 soldiers stationed there set to drop to 50 000 by the end of August 2010 ahead of a complete withdrawal, due by the end of 2011.

Boots on the ground

As well as 30 000 new troops, President Obama has also increased pressure on NATO allies for more boots on the ground.

Crucial to the strategy's success will be winning over the loyalties of local Afghans in much the same way US General David Petraeus, then the top US commander in Iraq, did with Sunnis in 2006 and 2007.

"Petraeus began to attract the Sunni Arab insurgency - he gave them hope that they would not be targeted by the security forces," said Baghdad-based analyst and commentator Ibrahim al-Sumaidie.

"He also used other things, like buying their loyalty with money."

Beginning in 2006, the US began paying Sunni insurgents to turn their backs on al-Qaeda, with those who switched sides becoming known as the Sahwa, or Awakening councils.

The Baghdad government has since taken control of paying them and has pledged to incorporate a fifth of the Sahwa into the security forces and find civil service jobs for the rest.

Whether or not the strategy can be replicated in Afghanistan, with its different terrain and ethnic groupings, remains to be seen, but Sumaidie said Obama's surge offers the US its best chance of success there.

"This policy saved the reputation of the United States and Iraq together," he said.

"By increasing the number of troops and replicating the policy of securing the loyalties of the local population, the US is capable of success in Afghanistan."