US troop buildup in Afghanistan could be a defining moment
Obama's order to send 17,000 more troops comes before US has set a clear strategy.
President Obama's decision to deploy 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan may be a defining move that will either reverse the deteriorating situation there or mire the new administration in a war with no foreseeable end.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The president's announcement yesterday answered a months-old request from Gen. David McKiernan, the top US commander in Afghanistan, who is trying to reverse a two-year slide in the battle with Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents. Last year produced the most US combat fatalities, 155, of any single year of the Afghan war.
"This increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction, and resources it urgently requires," Mr. Obama said yesterday.
The deployment order signed by the president includes about 8,000 marines, who will be sent into the thick of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan late this spring, in time for the busy fighting season. Another 4,000 soldiers from one of the Army's Stryker brigades will deploy by summer, and 5,000 troops will follow in coming months.
About 55,000 NATO troops are in Afghanistan now, about half of whom are Americans. The decision expands the total US force by more than 50 percent.
But even more US troops could be on their way. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has indicated the Pentagon ultimately may send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in the coming year or so.
"This is the beginning of an almost unending need," says one Pentagon official. Indeed, it is the first prong of a broader effort that will include nonmilitary efforts in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, the source of much of the insurgency.
All of this is a daunting prospect for an Obama administration barely in its first month of office – even if the move was long-expected after he campaigned on the issue last fall. Obama now is shouldering in earnest the role of commander-in-chief – with all that entails.
It is as yet unclear exactly what the new force will do. But it will face a determined insurgency operating in a vast, mountainous country. Despite seven years of US operations in Afghanistan, the bulk of the American fighting force is steeped in Iraq operations and will have to learn or relearn an entirely new culture, language, and battlefield conditions.
At the same time, the Obama administration still has not settled on a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and does not yet know its endgame. That strategy is being debated by senior US military and civilian officials. A decision isn't expected for another two months.
Most members of both political parties, as well as military experts, support sending the troops now, before the review is completed. "Republicans agree that a strategic review of the current situation in Afghanistan is warranted, and we will work to ensure that our commanders on the ground have all the additional troops they have requested," said Rep. John Boehner (R) of Ohio, the Republican House leader who has sparred with Obama over the economic stimulus package.