Drop Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Part 5: Iran

Posted: March 25, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Flooding any area with large numbers of armed people will always have larger ramifications than just the security implications in the immediate area. In Afghanistan, we have to look to the borders, to Pakistan and to Iran, to understand the implications of an escalation. In both cases, escalation poses grave risks for U.S. interests.

Let’s start with Iran.  According to the Congressional Research Service:

On one hand, Iran enjoys close, long-standing cultural, linguistic, and religious ties with significant portions of Afghanistan’s population. ISAF officials estimate that Iran is the second-largest contributor of reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, after the United States – its efforts are most evident in Herat Province in western Afghanistan. And since Iran is a major destination for Afghan heroin, with all of its attendant concerns about crime and drug addition, Iranian officials share with their Afghan counterparts a vested interest in effective counternarcotics approaches. Some officials also point to the generally positive role Iran played at the 2001 Bonn Conference, to help forge consensus among Afghan factions about the creation of a post-Taliban government, as evidence that Iran can play a constructive role on Afghan matters.

At the same time, ISAF officials state that Iran has provided some weapons and training to Afghan insurgents. Some add that Tehran may be concerned about a growing U.S. military footprint along both its eastern and western borders, as additional U.S. military forces flow into southern Afghanistan, and U.S. forces assume battlespaces in southern Iraq that were formerly  manned by coalition partners.

One official argued that Iran’s interest is to “keep it simmering” in Afghanistan. Most practitioners and observers suggest that, in some capacity, a comprehensive solution for Afghanistan must take Iran into account.

Iran has a much, much deeper interest in a stable Afghanistan than we do since it shares a border with them…until you account for the presence of U.S. troops. The relationship between Iran and the United States, despite the historic opportunity after 9/11 to make some real breakthroughs, degenerated markedly throughout the Bush II years. Now, at the beginning of the Obama administration, Iran finds itself surrounded by U.S. troops, with a key U.S. ally in the region rattling sabres at it on regular intervals. President Obama can make all the friendly holiday videos he wants; the most important immediate decision he must make with regard to U.S./Iranian relations is whether or not to increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

Here’s the context we must consider: despite the President’s public declaration of an intended end-date to the Iraq occupation, because of the way troops are being shuffled around in Iraq, more U.S. troops are taking up positions near the Iranian border, not fewer. If President Obama wants to avoid raising all sorts of alarm bells, the last thing he should do is engineer a situation where more troops suddenly materialize on both Iranian frontiers at the same time. A military escalation to provide resources for counterinsurgency strategies, however, would do exactly that: already, U.S. troop strength is expected to rise between 50 and 100 percent if current escalation orders stand. If the president’s advisers sway him to fight a full-out counterinsurgency, that percentage could increase at a geometric rate.

In addition to U.S. forces garrisoning it’s neighbor, Iran also has to consider the effect of a U.S. counterinsurgency push on the Afghan National Army. It will simply not be possible, absent a draft, for the U.S. to field the numbers required by counterinsurgency doctrine. Already, the numbers being pushed to argue for the feasibility of a very limited escalation policy assume maxed-out numbers of reliable ANA forces, and as we’ve pursued counterinsurgency strategy, we and our favored allies in Kabul consistently raised the target number for final ANA end strength.

For example, according to CRS’s report, at the time of the Bonn Agreement right after the Taliban’s initial fall from power, ANA’s endstrength target was set at 70,000 personnel. In September 2008, the Afghan government raised that number to 134,000, almost double the previous target. John Nagl, one of counterinsurgency’s luminaries, has pushed for an ANA comprised of 250,000 troops. Another U.S. official said 300,000.

Where things get dicey from Iran’s perspective is when we push the Afghan government to grow its forces beyond what their national revenue stream can sustain. When that happens, foreign aid will be required to fund the ANA. Guess where that money will come from? You guessed it: the United States.

Growing the ANA to 134,000 – or more – raises the twin questions of funding and sustainability. It is expected that the currently planned ANA growth will be funded by the international community; the United States is currently the leading contributor. If GIRoA wanted to sustain the force beyond that time frame, theoretical options would include continued U.S. and international support, or Afghan assumption of some level of financial responsibility. Alternatives could include demobilizing some part of the force – if GIRoA had the ability to do so – or, hypothetically, making part of the force available to serve in multi-lateral peace operations, in which case the international community might bear some of its costs.

For the future, one option, in the absence of GIRoA ability to shoulder the burden, would be sustained international support, a responsibility likely to fall to the U.S. Government, based on current patterns.

So because of U.S. insistence on a counterinsurgency, Iran must now take into account not only actual U.S. troops on its borders, but also the numbers of U.S.-client military troops on its borders. By transforming the ANA into a force backed primarily by U.S. dollars, we’ve changed how Iran will assess them in its geopolitical considerations. Instead of a neighbor with whom Iran shares common interests and concerns, Afghanistan becomes a local military toadie for the Great Satan. This U.S.-backed transformation will severely undermine any remaining Iranian rationale for continued humanitarian support for Afghanistan, while heavily incentivizing their second track: “keeping it simmering” to cause us headaches and humiliation.

In short, if President Obama chooses to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, he will waste a historic opportunity to thaw relations between the U.S. and Iran. That’s a huge opportunity cost, and not one we should pay.

Next: Counterinsurgency doctrine destabilizes Pakistan (and why you should care).

What you can do until then:

  1. Greg says:

    Bravo. Here’s another subtle, yet amazing COST asked to be burdened. Notice the Army only paid the bill once prodded. http://www.cnn.com/2009/US/03/26/wounded.warrior/index.html

  2. dcrowe says:

    Hey Greg:

    That story enrages me! Seriously?! Talk about a total recruitment killer: “hey join the army, get shot and go into debt for the medical bills!”

    I’m apoplectic.

  3. […] Counterinsurgency will severely complicate a thaw in U.S./Iranian relations and incentivize bad Iran…. […]

  4. Sporkmaster says:

    I can believe it because I have had a similar problem back before we even got to Iraq. Long story short the biggest reason why this happens is complacency and apathy. Those are the two major things that any medical personal should always be on guard against.

    The way that it happens is if you just work on basic sick call hours and see minor cases to the point where you start assuming that the person is not really sick and just using it to get out of work. (I had a person come in for a blood blister where there was almost a 2 hour wait to see a provider.) I am glad that this go resolved. though.

  5. Sporkmaster says:

    Here is something that I found about why there is suspision about Iran’s intentions about Afghanistan.

    US judge orders Iran to pay $25M for Hamas killing


    “The financial support, tactical training and political direction that Iran provided to Hamas proximately caused the abduction and execution of Nachshon,” Urbina concluded.”

    When I read this I could not help but think of all the people that protest the School of Americans over what happened in South America.

  6. dcrowe says:

    You’d be right to think of SotA in this situation. Good analogy.

    Iran is by no means a paragon of good-faith international relations. In the U.S./Iran relationship, we have plenty of mutual reasons not to trust one another, and it’s not going to be easy coming up with a regional solution to help Afghanistan. But, what we can do is to at least factor in their decision-making and increase incentives for them to behave in a way that serves both of our interests. Or at the very least, decrease incentives for them to behave badly. Flip it for a second: if they had hundreds of thousands of troops in Canada and Mexico, we’d have plenty of reasons to keep it simmering and make it painful for them to be encircling us…and we’d be paranoid as hell about their final intentions.

  7. Sporkmaster says:

    Well In the case of Iran being flanked on both sides, it would be wary of Iraq after the war in the 80s and the actions of Saddam in 1990 did nothing to help that along. But what is there to believe that Iran wants a stable Afghanistan or Iraq? Becuase to me Iran would benefit from that and would keep us busy in the process. Also actively calling for the destruction of a country while pursuing nuclear tech(even considering that they swear it is for power plants) does not make me warm and fuzzy in side. Also There is the issue of the Kurds and the PPK that keep bothering both Iran and Turkey.

    But if we where in the opposite position I am sure our views would reflect that but, I would not think that if for example if Russia had troops in the North and South that it would not be wise to actively call for the destruction of Cuba or Venezuela.

  8. dcrowe says:

    But what is there to believe that Iran wants a stable Afghanistan or Iraq? Becuase to me Iran would benefit from that and would keep us busy in the process. Also actively calling for the destruction of a country while pursuing nuclear tech(even considering that they swear it is for power plants) does not make me warm and fuzzy in side.f

    I think you’re right that Iran has an incentive to make things hard in Afghanistan as long as we have lots of troops there. That’s part of the point I’m trying to make in the above post: adding more U.S. troops provides an incentive for them to make trouble.

    Re: nuclear weapons, I think any nation that pursues weapons like those has a very serious morality problem given that they are weapons of mass murder. But that sword has two edges.

    I do not condone Iran’s bad behavior. I do think, though, we have to consider them as a factor when assessing the right course of action in the region. It’s in both our nations’ interests for the sword-rattling between us to cool off, and adding more troops in Afghanistan makes that more difficult.

  9. […] Drop Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, Part 5: Iran posted on April 3rd, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

  10. […] Counterinsurgency will severely complicate a thaw in U.S./Iranian relations and incentivize bad Iran…. […]

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