The biggest question facing President Obama’s war Cabinet as it sends more troops and resources to the Afghanistan front will be whether Gen. David H. Petraeus can emulate the successful counterinsurgency that helped quiet Iraq.
Whether or not the tactics that prevailed in Iraq can be exported to the rocky valleys and towering peaks of Afghanistan is a major aspect of a classified six-part study report commissioned last fall by Gen. Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command. The report has already been distributed to some in the intelligence community for comment.
Those who are working on the document are not sharing many details and stressing that the new strategy will likely remain secret and that it will be comprehensive.
The document, being written by a group of military officers and outside experts in something called the Centcom Assessment Team, will be presented in largely classified form to Gen. Petraeus later this month.
A senior military official familiar with the assessment said on Tuesday the review would cover the entire area of command — a region that runs from the western edge of the Middle East, or Levant, to the countries of southwest Asia. This official also said there was no guarantee the review would become policy.
“If Gen. Petraeus feels it is valuable, then it will be implemented,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was discussing a confidential document.
In addition to military tactics, the review will also cover U.S. intelligence posture in the region as well as diplomatic issues.
Some basic themes are likely to emerge. One camp in Washington would like to at least try to emulate the Awakening Councils that helped beat back al Qaeda in Anbar and other Sunni provinces in Iraq. On a smaller scale, this approach is already being tried. In Afghanistan, the country’s Interior Ministry over the weekend announced that the U.S. would arm and pay the salaries of what Kabul is calling the Afghan Public Protection Force.
While the rebellion against al Qaeda began before Gen. Petraeus took over U.S.-led forces in Iraq in January 2007, it was the strategy that aimed to protect and fight alongside tribal militias that ultimately wrested control from insurgents in the western, largely Sunni Muslim section of the country.
The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last year agreed to absorb into its security forces up to 20 percent of the nearly 100,000 Sunni fighters who joined U.S. forces to battle al Qaeda.
In December, Iraq took over from U.S. officials the payment of about 54,000 members of the volunteer force. The Iraqi government promised to pay the rest of the Sunni volunteers until it could find them civilian jobs.
An interpreter working with U.S. forces in western Iraq in 2006 and 2007 during the rise of the Awakening rebellion said there were some commonalities between Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The commonality is that there are people in the Awakening that are familiar with the problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They don’t pretend to believe the problem with the Pashto [a major Afghan ethnic group] is the same as the Sunni problem in Iraq. But they do recognize that a murder-and-intimidation campaign against the people is taking place,” Sterling Jensen told The Washington Times.
Indeed, last year, analysts commissioned by Sheik Ahmad Ridshawi — the leader of sheiks in Iraq’s Anbar province — sent a detailed proposal offering to send delegations from his own tribes to meet with Afghan tribal leaders to share best practices for how to start a rebellion against the Taliban and al Qaeda. The proposal was sent at the time to the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Christopher Dell, and was also shared with the Bush administration’s National Security Council.
Daniel Markey, a senior fellow and south Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that basic counterinsurgency lessons from Iraq could be exported to Afghanistan.
“At the very, very basic level, the idea of coordinating — they are calling it community outreach — is probably the only way you could move relatively rapidly to counteract advances made by the Taliban. If you want to say that is the Anbar model, well sure,” Mr. Markey said.
On Saturday, Afghanistan Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar announced the beginning of the Afghan Public Protection Force, a U.S.-funded program to train and arm local militias in troubled regions of the country.
However, the program, which has been compared to the Awakening Councils, has been received skeptically by some local leaders.
Associated Press quoted one Afghan official as saying that only criminals would join the force because most citizens wouldn’t want to face the Taliban in combat. Also, critics question the wisdom of handing out weapons to Afghans when the government and United Nations have been trying to reduce the number of arms in the country. They fear the plan could stoke rivalries between ethnic groups with a bloody past.
“One of the causes of violence in Afghanistan is because most people do not give up their weapons. Now you want to again give weapons to the villages?” said Mohammed Hussain Fahimi, the deputy of the provincial council in Wardak, where officials say the units will be first deployed.
“We never learn our lessons,” he told Associated Press.
Wardak lies southwest of the capital of Kabul and is increasingly falling under Taliban control, illustrating the growing influence of the Islamic insurgents in the years since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Mr. Fahimi was one of several government officials and residents interviewed in Wardak by Associated Press last week, all of whom expressed skepticism about the plan.
A senior military official who is familiar with the Centcom Assessment Team also warned against assuming that what worked in Iraq would work in Afghanistan.
“The dynamics of Iraq are, for the most part, unique to Iraq,” he said. “That does not mean that some elements of the strategy are not emulatable in Afghanistan. But there is no one formula.”
A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and one of the authors of the Iraq counterinsurgency strategy, Frederick W. Kagan, largely concurred.
“There are elements particularly of conceptualization that are applicable in parts of Afghanistan,” Mr. Kagan said. “In terms of taking the program in Iraq and transporting to Afghanistan, though, that’s a nonstarter, that can’t work by itself.”