The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Selling the Afghan Surge

December 9, 2009

As you might expect, I’ve had a number of conversations with friends and colleagues about the prospects for the so-called “Afghan surge.” Boosters like to point to the alleged success of the Iraq surge, but many of them ignore some salient points.

For example, the U.S. also changed its military tactics in Iraq even as it implemented the surge. The military embraced counterinsurgency tactics, something it had been reluctant to do since Vietnam.

Moreover, the surge coincided with the so-called Anbar awakening. Sunni tribal sheikhs split from al Qaeda and ended up working with the U.S. military instead of against it. A lot of money apparently changed hands to grease this process.

Matt Yglesias had a fine post Monday noting that the Iraqi national security advisor at the time is not willing to credit the surge with success in his country. Plus, as Yglesias notes, Afghanistan was falling apart even as Iraq was gaining some stability:

Iraq is definitely in better shape than it was three years ago and Afghanistan is definitely in worse shape. It’s not clear that that’s a net strategic gain for the United States nor is it clear that our dispatch of troops to Iraq was really decisive in leading to the improvements.

So, can the surge in Afghanistan work, coupled with COIN tactics?

As I’ve blogged previously, there’s no guarantee that anything like the Anbar Awakening can occur in Afghanistan. Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that American troops are not popular in Afghanistan. The drone attacks in Pakistan are extremely unpopular there. Thus, we cannot be assured that either a simple surge in troops or a change in military tactics can work in the Af-Pak context.

Yglesias suggests that the biggest success of the Iraq surge has been in PR — proponents created a narrative that allowed for the forthcoming U.S. exit. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for in Afghanistan as well.

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Rodger A. Payne is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. He serves on the University’s Sustainability Council and was a co-founder of the Peace, Conflict, and Social Justice program. He is the author of dozens of journal articles and book chapters and coauthor, with Nayef Samhat, of Democratizing Global Politics: Discourse Norms, International Regimes, and Political Community (SUNY, 2004). He is currently working on two major projects, one exploring the role of narratives in international politics and the other examining the implications of America First foreign policy.