Knitting together an Afghan strategy.

Military analysis.
June 20 2006 6:28 PM

Knitting Together an Afghan Strategy

NATO tests the "ink-spot theory."

This is Fred Kaplan's first report from Afghanistan. For the second part, click here.

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By the fall, the United States and NATO will have, all told, 33,000 troops in Afghanistan—only half of whom are currently permitted to go fight in the south. This is a big country. Just the dangerous southern provinces—Helmand, Kandahar, Zabul, and Uruzgan—are, together, nearly as big as Germany. We may not have enough troops to control them.

There are three ways to expand troop levels. First, the Afghan national army could hold the lid on secured areas. Well, maybe some day. Judging from a quick tour of the ANA's training center in Kabul, this is as yet a nascent army: inexperienced, ill-equipped, able at best to fight alongside Western armies but not at all on its own. The Western governments have agreed to build up this army to 70,000 troops. (It currently totals 30,000.) But Gen. Mohammad Amin Wardaq, an Afghan army veteran and the commander of the training center, said that 70,000 "is a small number, a very small number." (Pentagon officials have recently said the number might shrink further, to 50,000.)

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Second, there are the Afghan police, but they tend to be not just ill-equipped but incompetent and corrupt. One NATO officer notes: "They haven't been paid for three months—some not for six or seven months. How could they not be corrupt?" A reform campaign by President Hamid Karzai is improving things, but only slightly. Terence Jagger, Gen. Richards' political adviser, quoted one international study noting that of Karzai's 86 recent picks for chiefs of police, 13 are "corrupt, depraved, or both."

A third possibility is that the United States, NATO, or both will simply have to pour in more troops as their successes build. Is this likely? Much depends on whether there are successes—and whether they inspire Western nations to build on the achievements or declare victory and go home.

Finally, even if the Western nations perform with unparalleled brilliance and dedication, there is another obstacle—the craggy terrain and miserable history of Afghanistan itself. This is the ultimate question: Can any seedling planted on this forsaken soil bear fruit?

Coming Wednesday: Can freedom and opium mix?