THE BLOG

The Surge, by the Numbers

The 30,000 U.S. troops President Obama is launching at Afghanistan could fit comfortably inside Fenway Park, that "lyric little bandbox" of a baseball field, as John Updike so memorably described it, the home of my Boston Red Sox. They would not constitute a sellout. Give bleacher tickets to the additional troops the NATO countries are sending to Afghanistan and you might attain standing-room-only status.

The U.S. troops already in Afghanistan would all find seats in the football stadium at Penn State, home of the Nittany Lions (what the heck is a Nittany Lion, anyway?).

Put them all together in Afghanistan, give each soldier his own patch of land to defend, and you would have one soldier every three-and-a-half square miles, give or take a hectare or three. Afghanistan's land area is equal to that of California -- plus Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland and Delaware. Big place. But half of our men and women wouldn't be alone on that forbidding landscape -- every other coalition soldier would have the company of an Afghan National Army soldier. And if the Taliban were equally dispersed, there would be one insurgent every twenty-one square miles, giving fits to the nine coalition and ANA soldiers stationed there, plus the forty-five Afghan civilians trying to eke out a living there growing pomegranates or poppies.

Of course, that's not the way it works in real life, but the numbers do help give a sense of scale to the mission. Vast areas of Afghanistan are empty, or nearly so, and the great bulk of the coalition and Afghan forces will be concentrated around the population centers such as Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad. Still, crossing those vast empty spaces remains a problem for the movement of commerce and military supplies due to the ease with which the insurgents can plant IEDs on the roads and local bandits or militias can set up "toll booths," and someone has to patrol them. The more one does the numbers, the more The Surge looks like tokenism. And if the 30,000 are tokens, why send them at all? Some of them will die there and many others will be badly hurt.

In Iraq, the Surge was coupled with the so-called Sunni Awakening, as Sunni chiefs partnered with the U.S. forces to attack al Qaeda of Mesopotamia. A similar strategy may be possible in Afghanistan, and there may be opportunities to cut deals with local khans and empower local militias, and bring local Taliban into the economic development process. This is happening on a small scale, which is traditionally how things happen in Afghanistan, and the sooner we can give the Afghans back their traditions the sooner we can leave.