KABUL — One general with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan refers to the cost of a U.S. troop surge as the "mathematics of death."
And Afghans and the international community agree, the proposed deployment of 17,000 additional U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan will almost certainly mean a spike in the level of violence in the country.
“There is the risk of an increase initially,” Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, told GlobalPost in an interview. “There will be more kinetic action, more operations being conducted.”
“Kinetic” is military newspeak for “battle.” Another hot-button word, especially in Afghanistan, is “casualty.”
“We have to be careful about the mathematics of death,” said Blanchette. “I don’t like to say (that) necessarily because there are more operations… (there will be more casualties). We are sending a very negative message. It is not completely 100 percent sure. We are trying to demonstrate that over a period of time this operation is for the good of the area.”
The international community has been bogged down in Afghanistan for more than seven years. What was initially envisioned as a quick exercise in nation-building turned into an extended struggle with a growing insurgency.
ISAF, a 41-nation alliance led by NATO, was established by United Nations Resolution 1386 in December 2001 “to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in the maintenance of security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, so that the Afghan Interim Authority as well as the personnel of the United Nations can operate in a secure environment.”
Somewhere along the line, that mandate expanded to include a full-blown war. Now numbering about 55,000 troops — of which nearly 25,000 are U.S. soldiers — ISAF will soon grow to become an American-dominated force tasked with bringing security to an increasingly hostile and disappointed nation.
It is not an easy task.
“We are not using the word ‘surge,'” Blanchette said. “A surge is temporary. This is a sustained increase of troops that is required … this is a generational struggle. This mission has no end date.”
The international community is fast losing its appetite for the conflict, and many have already set an end date for their participation.
Canada, Blanchette’s home country, has announced that it will withdraw the bulk of its 3,000 forces by 2011. The Netherlands, with more than 1,700 troops in Afghanistan, is planning to leave by the end of 2010. The United Kingdom, which has the largest deployment of troops after the United States, is facing stiff domestic opposition to its war effort. A poll conducted by the BBC in November 2008 revealed that more than two-thirds of Britons would like the country’s 8,000 soldiers in Afghanistan home within a year.
The majority of the new troops will be deployed in the troubled southern provinces, where the insurgency and narcotics form a powerful nexus.
British forces operating under ISAF have been trying for nearly three years to bring some measure of security to poppy-rich Helmand, with little success. Local residents complain that the situation has deteriorated steadily since the British arrived, while ISAF prefers the term “stalemate.”
“Things are getting worse by the day,” said Ahmad Ahmadi, a 26-year-old pharmacist in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand. “Four years ago I was living in Marja district, everything was calm. Then the British soldiers came and it was impossible. They killed my 8-year-old son and injured my wife. These foreign troops are the reason the enemy is getting stronger.”
Ahmadi does not relish an influx of even more forces. “More troops mean more insecurity,” he said.
Zabiullah, a 19-year-old student in Lashkar Gah, was similarly pessimistic about the new arrivals. “Look, if a house is bombed, and all the members of that family are killed, how do you think people will react? If more troops come, there will be more opposition to them. Afghans do not forget things. They carry grudges for hundreds of years.”
The issue of civilian casualties touches a nerve in both the Afghan and international communities. Several high-profile incidents have stirred public anger against the foreign presence, such as an air strike in Herat province in August 2008, that the UN says killed more 90 people, or the bombing of a wedding party in Nangahar last July that left 47 dead, including the bride.
In January, the military command issued a new order on treatment of Afghan civilians, aimed at cutting down on some of the collateral damage in the battle for hearts and minds.
“The Tactical Directive states that respect for the Afghan people, their culture, and their religion must be the guiding principle of all ISAF personnel, both on and off the battlefield,” read a statement issued by ISAF. “With the goal of preserving civilian lives and minimizing damage to property, the Directive provides all ISAF personnel with guidance for searching Afghan homes and religious sites, as well as for proportionately engaging the insurgents who hide and wage battle among the Afghan population.”
But directives are one thing, and reality is quite another, Blanchette said.
“It is relatively easy to prepare directives, to explain what needs to be done,” he said. “But once you have a bullet in the thigh and two men killed … and insurgents using force in an indiscriminate way … you have a human factor that has to come in.
"It is very tough. In some cases (the soldiers) are 36 hours without sleep, they are hungry and tired. Do they always make the good call? … There are mistakes.”
The UN recently issued a report stating that civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose by nearly 40 percent in 2008. With the increase in troops, this figure could be much higher in 2009.
Still, Blanchette emphasized, all possible care would be taken to protect non-combatants.
“We certainly hope that there will be less and less civilian casualties, as we continue aiming towards a zero objective,” he said.
But even in the first two months of the year, there have been several incidents that have raised local hackles and embarrassed the international forces. A recent air strike in Herat province missed its target and killed 13 nomads, along with hundreds of animals in their flocks.
Down in Helmand, the provincial government has high hopes for the troop increase.
“We hope that, with the new forces, the security in Helmand will return to normal,” said Abdul Satar Mirzakwal, deputy governor of Helmand. “We also hope that this time the Americans do not use the same bombardment techniques they did in the past.”
But General Ghori, commander of the infantry division of 205 Atal Corps in Helmand, is not enthusiastic about the prospect of more foreign troops in his backyard.
“(The foreign forces) should support the Afghan National Army, the police, the security services,” he said. “Give them equipment, give them modern weapons, and there is no need for them to come.”
Training Afghans will be a priority of the new forces, according to Blanchette.
“We are really putting the emphasis on the training of the Afghan National Army and the police,” he said. “This is unfolding relatively well; we are on track to have 134,000 troops trained by the end of 2011.”
But ultimately, the solution to Afghanistan’s problems does not lie with the military, something that, once again, almost everyone can agree on.
“You cannot get anything from fighting,” Ghori said. “There is no military solution to this crisis.”
He is echoed by his ISAF colleague.
“The end of insurgency has to include a reconciliation of some sort,” Blanchette said. “We in uniform clearly recognize that.”
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