The Nine Surges of Obama's War in Afghanistan

How to escalate in Afghanistan

| Web Exclusive, December 2009

  • Afghanistan soldiers in muck

    Image by the Department of Defense.

  • Afghanistan soldiers in muck

This article was originally published by  TomDispatch .

In his Afghan “surge” speech at West Point last week, President Obama offered Americans some specifics to back up his new “way forward in Afghanistan.”  He spoke of the “additional 30,000 U.S. troops” he was sending into that country over the next six months.  He brought up the “roughly $30 billion” it would cost us to get them there and support them for a year.  And finally, he spoke of beginning to bring them home by July 2011.  Those were striking enough numbers, even if larger and, in terms of time, longer than many in the Democratic Party would have cared for.  Nonetheless, they don’t faintly cover just how fully the president has committed us to an expanding war and just how wide it is likely to become. 

Despite the seeming specificity of the speech, it gave little sense of just how big and how expensive this surge will be.  In fact, what is being portrayed in the media as the surge of November 2009 is but a modest part of an ongoing expansion of the U.S. war effort in many areas.  Looked at another way, the media's focus on the president’s speech as the crucial moment of decision, and on those 30,000 new troops as the crucial piece of information, has distorted what’s actually underway.

In reality, the U.S. military, along with its civilian and intelligence counterparts, has been in an almost constant state of surge since the last days of the Bush administration.  Unfortunately, while information on this is available, and often well reported, it’s scattered in innumerable news stories on specific aspects of the war.  You have to be a media jockey to catch it all, no less put it together.

What follows, then, is my own attempt to make sense of the nine fronts on which the U.S. has been surging, and continues to do so, as 2009 ends.  Think of this as an effort to widen our view of Obama’s widening war.     

Obama’s Nine Surges

1.  The Troop Surge:  Let’s start with those “30,000” new troops the president announced.  First of all, they represent Obama’s surge, phase 2.  As the president pointed out in his speech, there were “just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan” when he took office in January 2009.  In March, Obama announced that he was ordering in 21,000 additional troops.  Last week, when he spoke, there were already approximately 68,000 to 70,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.  If you add the 32,000 already there in January and the 21,700 actually dispatched after the March announcement, however, you only get 53,700, leaving another 15,000 or so to be accounted for.  According to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post, 11,000 of those were “authorized in the waning days of the Bush administration and deployed this year,” bringing the figure to between 64,000 and 65,000.  In other words, the earliest stage of the present Afghan “surge” was already underway when Obama arrived. 

It also looks like at least a few thousand more troops managed to slip through the door in recent months without notice or comment.  Similarly, with the 30,000 figure announced a week ago, DeYoung reports that the president quietly granted Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the right to “increase the number by 10 percent, or 3,000 troops, without additional White House approval or announcement.”  That already potentially brings the most recent surge numbers to 33,000, and an unnamed “senior military official” told De Young “that the final number could go as high as 35,000 to allow for additional support personnel such as engineers, medevac units and route-clearance teams, which comb roads for bombs.” 

Now, add in the 7,500 troops and trainers that administration officials reportedly strong-armed various European countries into offering.  More than 1,500 of these are already in Afghanistan and simply not being withdrawn as previously announced.  The cost of sending some of the others, like the 900-plus troops Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has promised, will undoubtedly be absorbed by Washington.  Nonetheless, add most of them in and, miraculously, you’ve surged up to, or beyond, Afghan War commander General Stanley McChrystal’s basic request for at least 40,000 troops to pursue a counterinsurgency war in that country. 

2.  The Contractor Surge:  Given our heavily corporatized and privatized military, it makes no sense simply to talk about troop numbers in Afghanistan as if they were increasing in a void.  You also need to know about the private contractors who have taken over so many former military duties, from KP and driving supply convoys to providing security on large bases.  There’s no way of even knowing who is responsible for the surge of (largely Pentagon-funded) private contractors in Afghanistan.  Did their numbers play any part in the president’s three months of deliberations?  Does he have any control over how many contractors are put on the U.S. government payroll there?  We don’t know. 

Private contractors certainly went unmentioned in his speech and, amid the flurry of headlines about troops going to Afghanistan, they remain almost unmentioned in the mainstream media.  In major pieces on the president’s tortuous “deliberations” with his key military and civilian advisors at the New York Times , the Washington Post , and the Los Angeles Times , all produced from copious officially inspired leaks, there wasn't a single mention of private contractors, and yet their numbers have been surging for months. 

A modest-sized article by August Cole in the Wall Street Journal the day after the president’s speech gave us the basics, but you had to be looking.  Headlined “U.S. Adding Contractors at Fast Pace,” the piece barely peeked above the fold on page 7 of the paper.  According to Cole:  “The Defense Department's latest census shows that the number of contractors increased about 40% between the end of June and the end of September, for a total of 104,101. That compares with 113,731 in Iraq, down 5% in the same period... Most of the contractors in Afghanistan are locals, accounting for 78,430 of the total...”  In other words, there are already more private contractors on the payroll in Afghanistan than there will be U.S. troops when the latest surge is complete. 

Though many of these contractors are local Afghans hired by outfits like DynCorp International and Fluor Corp., TPM Muckracker managed to get a further breakdown of these figures from the Pentagon and found that there were 16,400 “third country nationals” among the contractors, and 9,300 Americans.  This is a formidable crew, and its numbers are evidently still surging, as are the Pentagon contracts doled out to private outfits that go with them.  Cole, for instance, writes of the contract that Dyncorp and Fluor share to support U.S. forces in Afghanistan “which could be worth as much as $7.5 billion to each company in the coming years.”

3.  The Militia Surge:  U.S. Special Forces are now carrying out pilot programs for a mini-surge in support of local Afghan militias that are, at least theoretically, anti-Taliban.  The idea is evidently to create a movement along the lines of Iraq's Sunni Awakening Movement that, many believe, ensured the "success" of George W. Bush's 2007 surge in that country.  For now, as far as we know, U.S. support takes the form of offers of ammunition, food, and possibly some Kalashnikov rifles, but in the future we'll be ponying up more arms and, undoubtedly, significant amounts of money.

This is, after all, to be a national program, the Community Defense initiative, which, according to Jim Michaels of USA Today, will “funnel millions of dollars in foreign aid to villages that organize ‘neighborhood watch’-like programs to help with security.”  Think of this as a “bribe” surge.  Such programs are bound to turn out to be essentially money-based and designed to buy “friendship.”

4.  The Civilian Surge:  Yes, Virginia, there is a “civilian surge” underway in Afghanistan, involving increases in the number of “diplomats and experts in agriculture, education, health and rule of law sent to Kabul and to provincial reconstruction teams across the country.”  The State Department now claims to be “on track” to triple the U.S. civilian component in Afghanistan from 320 officials in January 2009 to 974 by “the early weeks of next year.”  (Of course, that, in turn, means another mini-surge in private contractors:  more security guards to protect civilian employees of the U.S. government.)  A similar civilian surge is evidently underway in neighboring Pakistan, just the thing to go with a surge of civilian aid and a plan for a humongous new, nearly billion-dollar embassy compound to be built in Islamabad.

5. The CIA and Special Forces Surge:  And speaking of Pakistan, Noah Shachtman of Wired’s Danger Room blog had it right recently when, considering the CIA’s “covert” (but openly discussed) drone war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, he wrote:  “The most important escalation of the war might be the one the President didn’t mention at West Point.”  In fact, the CIA’s drone attacks there have been escalating in numbers since the Obama administration came into office.  Now, it seems, paralleling the civilian surge in the Af/Pak theater of operations, there is to be a CIA one as well.  While little information on this is available, David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times report that in recent months the CIA has delivered a plan to the White House “for widening the campaign of strikes against militants by drone aircraft in Pakistan, sending additional spies there and securing a White House commitment to bulk up the C.I.A.’s budget for operations inside the country.”

In addition, Scott Shane of the Times reports

“The White House has authorized an expansion of the C.I.A.’s drone program in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, officials said..., to parallel the president’s decision… to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. American officials are talking with Pakistan about the possibility of striking in Baluchistan for the first time—a controversial move since it is outside the tribal areas—because that is where Afghan Taliban leaders are believed to hide.”

The Pakistani southern border province of Baluchistan is a hornet’s nest with its own sets of separatists and religious extremists, as well as a (possibly U.S.-funded) rebel movement aimed at the Baluchi minority areas of Iran.  The Pakistani government is powerfully opposed to drone strikes in the area of the heavily populated provincial capital of Quetta where, Washington insists, the Afghan Taliban leadership largely resides.  If such strikes do begin, they could prove the most destabilizing aspect of the widening of the war that the present surge represents.

In addition, thanks to the Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill, we now know that, from a secret base in Karachi, Pakistan, the U.S. Army’s Joint Special Operations Command, in conjunction with the private security contractor Xe (formerly Blackwater), operates “a secret program in which they plan targeted assassinations of suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives, ‘snatch and grabs’ of high-value targets and other sensitive action inside and outside Pakistan.”  Since so many U.S. activities in Pakistan involve secretive, undoubtedly black-budget operations, we may only have the faintest outlines of what the “surge” there means.

6.  The Base-Building Surge:  Like the surge in contractors and in drone attacks, the surge in base-building in Afghanistan significantly preceded Obama's latest troop-surge announcement.  A recent NBC Nightly News report on the ever-expanding U.S. base at Kandahar Airfield, which it aptly termed a “boom town,” shows just how ongoing this part of the overall surge is, and at what a staggering level.  As in Iraq from 2003 on, billions of dollars are being sunk into bases, the largest of which—especially the old Soviet site, Bagram Air Base, with more than $200 million in construction projects and upgrades underway at the moment—are beginning to look like ever more permanent fixtures on the landscape. 

Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Summer 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $40.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $45 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

Facebook Instagram Twitter

click me