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‘Surge’ echoes Afghanistan mission

Surge...escalation...plus-up... Whatever you call the "new way forward," when it comes to increasing U.S. troop levels and adjusting their mission, the Bush administration's new plan for Iraq takes a number of pages from an already familiar playbook. Are you ready for this? Afghanistan.

That's right, we have come full circle. The template didn't even begin to work in "the other war" until well into 2006 -- because it was so overshadowed by events in Iraq. Now the same ideas will be tried in an attempt to salvage a situation, in Iraq, that many analysts already see as unwinnable.

Successes in the ‘forgotten war’
Since April last year, U.S. forces in Eastern Afghanistan have made -- for the first time (and this is according to the foot soldiers) -- a big turn in tamping down violence and winning local hearts and minds. After almost five years of war -- and a chaotic situation in the south -- what happened in the east?

First of all, U.S. forces (some 22,000) were able to focus entirely on a limited area of operation, namely, the border with Pakistan, as NATO forces assumed control of the southern provinces. This, in effect, provided a "surge" of U.S. troops in the east.

U.S. forces over the summer and fall, in joint operations with the emerging Afghan Army, launched a series of large sweeps through districts and provinces where the Taliban and al-Qaida had taken refuge. But, rather than pulling out from what had been cleared, U.S. forces STAYED and BUILT.

They set up Afghan military bases in these remote areas and created Provincial Reconstruction Teams that paved dirt roads and rehabilitated destroyed schools. Most importantly, U.S. company and battalion commanders handed out what they call CERP money – from the Commander's Emergency Response Program. That purse was made up of hundred of thousands of dollars that commanders on the ground could dip into and give -- no strings attached -- to local villagers and tribal leaders who wanted to build a bridge or start a small business.

‘Clear-Hold-Build’ strategy
Fast forward to the "new way forward" in Iraq. Bush is expected to announce Wednesday that he will send 20,000 more troops to Iraq – that’s very close to the number of U.S. forces now in Afghanistan. A series of joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations will attempt to clear insurgents and militiamen from a number of flashpoints in Baghdad, and then (and this is new) HOLD those areas with a long-term U.S. and Iraqi presence, perhaps up to a year.

And, as in Afghanistan, the "economic'" component in Iraq is emerging as critical. CERP money will be an important weapon in U.S. commanders' arsenal in Baghdad, as it has become in the towns and villages of eastern Afghanistan.

There is a point where the Iraqi template stops cloning the Afghan one: U.S. forces in Afghanistan do NOT have to deal with the horror of sectarian violence in their theater. The fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban is not complicated by dozens of Sunni or Shiite bodies being tortured, murdered and dumped in the streets on a daily basis.

But it is striking that the new Bush plan for Iraq does seem to apply -- not only the lessons of previous failed operations in Baghdad (like Operation Together Forward) -- but also the lessons of counter-insurgency successes in the so-called "forgotten war" in Afghanistan. There, as in Iraq, the local populace had to have something to LOSE by siding with the insurgents. There, as in Iraq, the "enemy" had to be cleared out -- and KEPT out -- before any nation-building could begin.

Will it work?
No one knows if this strategy will work -- or whether it's already too late for any U.S.-imposed plan to succeed in Iraq. What can be said is that U.S. soldiers in eastern Afghanistan have told us they've seen a "tipping point," over the past six months, and believe that -- finally -- they are winning, at least in their sector.

The new crop of U.S. generals will soon be in place in Iraq who, it is said, "get" the "clear-hold-build" strategy and the need to fight equally on the economic and political front lines. But...will it work?

Jim Maceda an NBC News correspondent based in London who just returned from extended assignments in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

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