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Iraq in Afghanistan?

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General Petraeus's successful counter-insurgency plan for the predominately urban Iraq is being stretched in rural Afghanistan

The next month is a pivotal time for America's Afghanistan strategy. The Senate is expected to vote on the Obama administration's $128bn request to fund war operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for the coming fiscal year. Next week, the administration will unveil a report on whether US benchmarks for success in Afghanistan are being achieved.

These important dates follow Osama bin Laden's latest statement where he taunted the US president, describing Barack Obama as "powerless" to affect the outcome in Afghanistan. While Bin Laden may be more marginal than ever, it is clear that things are not going quite to plan in Afghanistan. Britain's defense secretary, Bob Ainsworth, put it succinctly when he explained earlier in the week how "we are facing a resilient enemy, which we are far from succeeding against."

Indeed, reports suggest that General Stanley McChrystal is going to call for a "surge on top of the surge," with the potential for thousands of additional US and Nato soldiers being deployed.

This comes as top Democratic lawmakers have voiced new skepticism about this potential troop increase in Afghanistan. Last week, Senate armed services committee chair Carl Levin said he would oppose a troop increase until the US improves the training of Afghan forces. Meanwhile, House speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested she would oppose sending more US troops to Afghanistan.

So why hasn't the "Petraeus effect" worked so far in Afghanistan? Clearly there are significant differences in the operational environment -- and it should be remembered that General Petraeus's much-hailed counterinsurgency field manual was designed with collapsed-state urban Iraq in mind, rather than failed-state rural Afghanistan.

Afghanistan's population of about 33m people live in a landlocked country with an area of 647,500 sq km. Iraq's 29 million people live in 437,073 sq km of territory. Crucially, whereas Iraq's population are 67% urban living along the Euphrates/Tigris spine of the country, Afghanistan has an urban population of only 24% spread out around the lowland areas at the bottom of the Hindu Kush mountains.

Iraq expert Juan Cole recently wrote an article highlighting the significant development differences between the two countries:

The tendency to make analogies from Iraq to Afghanistan is disturbing. They are not similar. Iraq is an oil state with substantial resources. It used to have a high literacy rate before US/UN sanctions of the 1990s, and even now probably the rate is 76% -- so the troops can most often read and write. In contrast, Afghanistan is dirt poor and the literacy rate of its troops is only 10%.

Critically, however, the US "surge" in Iraq acted to reconnect the largely Sunni insurgency to the Shia-Kurdish government against the backdrop of a brutal, but relatively low-level, civil strife. The US tactical adjustment of living among and prioritising the protection of the people led to the Sunni Awakening movement and the "Sons of Iraq" effectively switching sides, with a unanimity in purpose with the Americans to root out "extremist" al-Qaida elements. In Iraq's largely urban battle space, blast walls, fortified outposts, curfews and hundreds of checkpoints were able to significantly reduce violence, although very real fears of slippage remain.

In Afghanistan, as Cole points out, there is far less of a state to connect the insurgents back to. Although one of the ironies concerning the level of corruption during the recent election was that it showed a greater capacity of the Karzai government than people estimated, the government still fundamentally lacks effective sovereignty.

The difficulty caused by the absence of any recent history of a unitary state is compounded by the reality that unlike the Sunnis in Iraq, the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. While the surge in Iraq provided the catalyst for the embattled Sunni population to seek protection from the US and recognition from the central government, the Pashtun population of Afghanistan that make up the Taliban are far more confident of their own ability to take the government by force than any compromise with the US.

A recent IISS report recommended that the US-led policy in Afghanistan should be "more cunning." Unless Petraeus can significantly adapt his COIN (counterinsurgency) strategy to Afghanistan then IISS director general Dr John Chipman may be proved right when he said: "Domestically, Obama may have campaigned on the theme 'yes we can'; internationally he may increasingly have to argue 'no we can't'."