Levin: In Afghanistan, US should focus on training local forces

Sen. Carl Levin cited concerns about stress on the US military as the US decides its next steps in Afghanistan. Levin spoke at a Monitor breakfast Thursday.

By , Staff writer

President Obama is concerned about the stress on the US military as he weighs the merits of “surging” more forces into Afghanistan, says a top lawmaker.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Thursday that eight years of war have worn the military down and that the best way forward for Afghanistan is to rely on training the Afghan force – not on increasing substantially the number of combat forces. American forces “are so badly overstretched,” said Senator Levin.

He indicated that Mr. Obama’s most recent meeting on Afghanistan zeroed in on the condition of the military. “The president is focusing on the pressure, the stress that all these tours of duty have placed upon our troops, and that’s a real issue,” he told reporters at a breakfast in Washington hosted by the Monitor.

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Despite obvious concern over the military's condition, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan; Gen. David Petraeus, commander of US Central Command; and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have all signaled that more troops are the answer. Mullen in particular has also pushed to increase the amount of time that troops have at home between deployments.

Still, the troop weariness issue – which hasn’t come up in months as deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan have normalized – could have some sway.

Currently, about 100,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan. McChrystal has requested up to 60,000 troops for a counterinsurgency strategy.

Obama is holding a series of meetings with top advisers to decide the way forward in Afghanistan.

For his part, Levin believes that the focus should be on training the Afghan forces and that this is ultimately the way out of Afghanistan.

He heralded remarks made Wednesday by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who committed 500 additional troops to Afghanistan for a total of 9,500, but who wants the focus to be on training the Afghan army. This, Levin says, is the way for the United States to show “resolve” in Afghanistan.

“The right strategy is the one that finishes the job by giving the Afghans the tools to take over,” Levin quoted Mr. Brown as saying. “I believe that is the right answer,” said Levin, adding that more combat troops reinforces the Afghan perception that the US is an occupying force.

There are currently about 170,000 Afghan national-security forces, consisting of police army and other units. Most military commanders, other experts, and US lawmakers agree the Afghan military must be much larger, and most think it needs to at least double in the next few years.

Trainers will make the difference, Levin said.

“[My] focus is to try to help the Afghans succeed by a much greater effort of training larger numbers ... of Afghans [faster] for their army and by focusing on equipping that army. We ought to have a plan in place for a real surge – not just of Afghans into their army, but a surge of equipment to that army,” he said at the breakfast.

The flawed elections held in August that put President Hamid Karzai ahead with a 55 percent return pose a problem for the Obama administration and could undermine a focus on building the Afghan army as Levin proposes. President Karzai’s government, widely viewed as corrupt, may not be able to handle a strong military trained and equipped by the US and allied trainers.

That military could, with time, wrest control from a weak central government, opening the door for a military dictatorship and an unreliable American partner.

That problem doesn’t necessarily go away under the counterinsurgency approach advocated by Obama’s flag officers. But in a counterinsurgency, creating security is as important as establishing local and central governance, using military and nonmilitary means to essentially build a nation.

Counterinsurgency proponents believe that such a strategy has a better chance of overcoming a weak Karzai government, but it would take years to complete.

Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington, believes that Afghanistan should be a priority over the war in Iraq. The Pentagon, he says, can lessen the stress on the military by accelerating the drawdown of forces from Iraq over the next year, freeing up forces for Afghanistan. “I would keep dwell time [time at home for troops] by taking down troops in Iraq faster,” he wrote in an e-mail during a visit to Iraq this week. “Troops should have at least 16 months between deployments, and I would give priority to it over Iraq.”

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