McCain Wants Afghanistan “Surge;” U.S. Commanders Do Not

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Let’s assume for a minute that the Iraq “surge” was primarily responsible for this year’s reduction in violence there. A debatable point, but say it’s true. Why shouldn’t we just do the same thing in Afghanistan? That’s the question on McCain’s mind lately. “The same strategy that [Obama] condemned in Iraq,” McCain said at last Friday’s debate, referring to the Iraq surge, is “going to have to be employed in Afghanistan.”

Hey, if it worked in one place, it’ll work somewhere else, right? Not quite, say U.S. commanders (here and here). In a comforting departure from the adage that generals are always preparing to fight the last war, new CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus and the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, are warning that things aren’t that simple and that lessons learned in Iraq don’t necessarily translate.

As Petraeus told the New York Times yesterday, “People often ask, ‘What did you learn from Iraq that might be transferable to Afghanistan?’ The first lesson, the first caution really, is that every situation like this is truly and absolutely unique, and has its own context and specifics and its own texture.”

McKiernan seconded the thought with this explanation to the Washington Independent:

[Afghanistan] has very harsh geography. It’s very difficult to move around, getting back to our reliance on helicopters. It’s a country with very few natural resources, as opposed to the oil revenues that [Iraq] has. There’s very little money to be generated in terms of generated in Afghanistan. The literacy rate – you have a literate society in Iraq, you have a society that has a history of producing civil administrators, technocrats, middle class that are able to run the country in Iraq. You do not have that in Afghanistan. So there are a lot of challenges. What I don’t think is needed – the word that I don’t use in Afghanistan is the word ‘surge.’ There needs to be a sustained commitment of a variety of military and non-military resources, I believe.

All this said, McKiernan has also asked for more troops. Surge or not, Afghanistan is heating up and the next president will have to figure out how to best to proceed.

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