The U.S. plan to send an additional 3,200 Marines into southern Afghanistan at least reflects a dawning understanding that the struggle to neutralize jihadism and jihadists may be going on more directly in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Iraq — and the struggle is not going especially well.
Just in the last few days a suicide bomber killed seven people in a just-built luxury hotel in Kabul, the Dutch government is looking into a “friendly fire” incident, and the Taliban and or al-Qaida forces effectively control much of the country outside the capital.
Not surprisingly, most of the NATO countries whose forces make up about half of the 54,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan are publicly rethinking whether they want to keep their military people at risk in a war that has been getting nastier but whose objectives are still ill-defined.
The U.S. and Great Britain have disagreed publicly and sometimes nastily over counterinsurgency tactics. A Canadian government report notes that proportional to the number of troops deployed (2,500) the Canadian death rate in Afghanistan is higher than the U.S. death rate in Iraq.
The Canadian commitment to Afghanistan expires next January and is not popular at home.
The Western-oriented government headed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai controls very little outside the capital of Kabul. The Taliban is resurgent in the southern part of Afghanistan, and most intelligence services believe that al-Qaida’s central leadership has reconstituted itself in the mountainous and essentially ungovernable region along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
A record opium crop, from which the Taliban typically skims money to finance its operations, is expected this year.
As remarkable as U.S. Marines are in their capabilities, it is unclear whether 3,200 more Marines, reportedly to be deployed in the opium-rich and Taliban-infested province of Helmand, where the British have prime military responsibility, will make an appreciable difference on the battlefield.
But their deployment is a signal to other NATO countries that the U.S. is more serious than it has seemed in the past about securing what at first seemed an easy victory in Afghanistan.
Central government control has never been especially effective in Afghanistan, but the situation is less stable now than it was in the first few years after the Taliban was ousted.
If additional U.S. forces can significantly disrupt al-Qaida operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border, that would be an important accomplishment. Beyond that objective, however, “stabilizing” Afghanistan may be beyond the power of any occupation force; Neither the Russians nor the British could do it during the “great game” era in the 1800s, and the Soviets failed in the 1980s.