By Andrew Gray
WASHINGTON, Dec 9 (Reuters) - When is a surge not a surge? When it involves sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan, not Iraq.
Just as the United States sent more forces to Iraq to quell rampant violence, many U.S. politicians led by President-elect Barack Obama want to send more troops to Afghanistan to fight a growing insurgency.
But while politicians talk of another surge -- the term that became shorthand for the extra troops and new strategy deployed in Iraq in 2007 -- military officers avoid the word because they view the two wars differently.
The Iraq surge was billed as a temporary boost to get a grip on sectarian attacks but U.S. commanders say higher troop levels in Afghanistan are needed probably for years to defeat the Taliban and other insurgents.
"It’s not necessarily a surge as much as it is a reinforcement," said U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy chief of staff for operations for NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
For years, U.S. commanders have described Afghanistan as an "economy of force" effort -- meaning they do not have enough troops to do everything they want.
There are some 65,000 foreign troops -- including 31,000 from the United States -- in Afghanistan, compared to around 150,000 in Iraq. Yet Afghanistan is larger and more populous, with 32 million people against Iraq’s 28 million.
Afghanistan’s rugged terrain and limited infrastructure present a bigger challenge than Iraq, a far more developed country where troops can move around on modern highways and people are more concentrated in urban centers.
"Due to the... tyranny of the terrain over here, some of our troops operate up at 10,000 feet (3,048 metres), all the way to the desert expanses," Tucker recently told reporters at the Pentagon by video link from Afghanistan.
"There’s not a lot of highway network to move on."
Taliban militants and other insurgents have sanctuaries across the Pakistani border and have recently attacked military supplies headed for Afghanistan inside Pakistan.
Because Pakistan is a key U.S. ally with a shaky government, it is politically difficult to pursue insurgents across the border.
Another challenge is the complexity of the NATO force, under whose auspices most foreign troops in Afghanistan serve.
Although led by a U.S. general, the force involves more than 40 nations, with their own views on how the war should be fought and limits on how their troops can be used.
An increase of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will likely occur more gradually than in Iraq, where the surge of some 30,000 troops built up over about six months.
More than 20,000 extra U.S. troops, comprising combat forces, an aviation brigade and support units, are expected to arrive over the next 12 to 18 months, Pentagon officials say.
Proportionally, this increase would be much larger than the Iraq surge.
Despite the differences, analysts also see some important similarities with Iraq.
John Nagl, a retired U.S. officer who co-wrote the Army’s counter-insurgency manual, said that the extra troops could help provide basic security in Afghanistan, just as they did in Iraq, so political and economic progress could be made.
"You have to protect the population first and that’s something we haven’t had enough boots on the ground to be able to do in Afghanistan," Nagl said.
But Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations said the Iraq surge was more about giving Sunni Muslim former insurgents, disillusioned with al Qaeda, the confidence to switch sides and fight with U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
Both U.S. and Afghan officials want to reach out to "reconcilable" elements of the Afghan insurgency but analysts see little sign that large numbers of warlords or tribal leaders are on the verge of switching sides.
Biddle said U.S. and NATO commanders may need to keep some extra troops in reserve to be deployed to put pressure on insurgent groups to change allegiances.
"The challenge for us is: How do we assemble a set of incentives that will take some pretty hard-bitten characters and persuade them to negotiate a peace?" he said.
One element of the Iraq surge that experts say needs to be duplicated is an increase in civilian efforts that accompanied the military deployment.
In Iraq, those efforts focused on encouraging political reconciliation. In Afghanistan, they are likely to concentrate on battling corruption and the opium trade and boosting economic development. (Editing by Alan Elsner)