Senior defense officials are debating how many troops they can send to Afghanistan and how soon they can do it to improve the deteriorating security situation there.
But even as political pressure mounts to do more to stop the violence in that region, there is increasing fear in the Pentagon that sending in more forces is just a stopgap measure that masks the absence of a broader, viable strategy.
"To a certain extent, we have boxed ourselves into the idea that additional troops is a panacea for revising strategy," says a senior Pentagon official. "That in and of itself becomes the strategy."
More troops does mean more security, says the military official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the matter. But he and others don’t think the conversation inside the Defense Department or at the national level has “matured” past that.
Other officials fear that plans to withdraw more troops from Iraq offers a convenient way to send more to Afghanistan, without a plan for how they would be used or to what objective.
That thinking suggests that Iraq and Afghanistan are one and the same, says the official, when in fact they are different, not only in terms of US interests but in what can be done on the ground.
When the war in Iraq was failing at the end of 2006, President Bush appointed counterinsurgency expert Gen. David Petraeus, who laid out a new approach. The announcement of a surge of roughly 30,000 new troops in Iraq at the start of 2007 was not so much a change in strategy as tactics – and more forces to help implement it.
Many defence officials believe Afghanistan needs that same kind of reassessment. But as with Iraq, sending in more troops alone won’t do the trick, they say.
“If my tires are low on air, putting more gas into the car won’t help,” says the senior official.
Any attempt to reassess US strategy in Afghanistan is made more difficult by two factors that don’t exist in Iraq: Much of the violence in Afghanistan stems from terrorist sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan, where coalition forces generally cannot tread. And responsibility lies with a NATO coalition of forces, which means the US has to walk a political tightrope as it sorts out what needs to be done and who should do it.
Experts outside the Pentagon say that though oil-rich Iraq is considered strategically more important, given its proximity to Iran, the US cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan, which is in a region critical to US geo-political interests. Even if it becomes 100 percent secure, the terrorist threat from border regions in Pakistan remains strong.
Regardless of the debate over strategy, political pressure makes more troops in Afghanistan inevitable.
Both presidential hopefuls, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, have expressed a desire to provide more resources and troops to Afghanistan, with Sen. Joe Biden, Mr. Obama’s running mate, calling Afghanistan “the real central front on terror” in Denver Tuesday.
The Pentagon has said it wants to send as many as three brigades, or about 12,000 more American troops, there. Some could be sent before the end of the year. Earlier this year, then NATO commander US Gen. Dan McNeill told the White House by video teleconference that three more brigades would do the job.
There is concern that the request for three brigades has come to dominate the debate about Afghanistan, but without being scrutinized with any real vigor. “That kind of rationalization has not been done for Afghanistan as far as I can tell,” says one aide to a senior member of Congress.
The request for more forces is tied to the assessment General Petraeus will provide this fall on how many troops can be drawn down in Iraq.
The debate over a proper strategy shouldn’t delay sending more forces there soon, says John Nagl, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Mr. Nagl believes a “decades long” campaign plan is necessary but there is a short term need, too.
“There are always risks of action and inaction, but the risks of not taking action fairly urgently to get boots on the ground, and they have to be American boots, is far graver in my eyes,” he says.
Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, recently visited Iraq and Afghanistan and pressed again Wednesday for more Marines to be pulled out of Iraq and sent to Afghanistan. “More Marines, more coalition forces, will allow us to go to those places and force the bad guys into the mountains,” General Conway said. “And you know what? Sooner or later, they get hungry. They start to starve to death. And they’re much more willing to listen to terms.”