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: