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.

Oleg Popov/Reuters
President Barack Obama announced the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan on Tuesday.

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.

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.

Some Obama voters had hoped he would effectively end US engagement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But while Obama is mulling over the rate at which he will draw down forces in Iraq, he is significantly increasing the force in Afghanistan. Even left-leaning experts say it is the right thing to do if the US wants to be effective there.

"There is a group of people who supported Obama who are saying 'we don't need a surge,'" says Larry Korb, a former Pentagon official and now a senior fellow with the left-leaning Center for American Progress, a think tank in Washington. But that could embolden insurgents who are trying to convince poor Afghan villagers to side with them, he says.

Despite the broad, bipartisan support for the additional troops, there appears to be little agreement on what the strategic objectives should be. At the same time, there is an emerging realism that the US and its allies cannot aim for a high level of democracy in Afghanistan. In recent weeks, senior military officials have begun playing down expectations, saying the country will likely never be a model democracy and that the focus must be on bringing enough security so the Afghans can eventually govern and secure themselves.

One consideration is that the US must work in Afghanistan in coordination with troops from other NATO countries, something most experts agree has hindered success. The complex NATO command structure, and caveats from allies about what their militaries will and will not do, have blunted the overall effort there, they say.

But in the new Obama White House, there is no lack of strategy review. Three separate assessments are under way: one by Admiral Mullen; another by Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, Obama's "war czar" and a holdover from the Bush administration; and a third by Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the region, including Iraq and Afghanistan. A fourth assessment is designed to draw on all the reviews in an attempt to create a composite approach.

While there is still no consensus, many participants say they know what it should not be: an all-military action. Afghanistan, whose people are mostly illiterate and who have a per capita GDP of just $350, needs economic aid and reconstruction. That means other, nonmilitary agencies must contribute to the effort if NATO and the US is to be successful.

Yet another strategy review is looking at how a multitude of US agencies such as the State, Commerce, Justice, and Agriculture Departments can play a role in the mission. That review is headed up by Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and top adviser to three presidents on the Middle East.

Mr. Riedel's review will be complete in 60 days. The president is expected to launch his broad strategy for Afghanistan just prior to a meeting of NATO ministers in April.

That strategy is expected to take on the prickly problem of opium production in Afghanistan, a revenue source that contributes to the Taliban's ability to hold some areas. The US and its allies have not had a significant impact on opium production, leaving the government of President Hamid Karzai to tackle the problem. But despite some successes, the Afghan government has not had a measurable impact on the industry. At the same time, a NATO agreement that would allow its troops to attack the problem has gone nowhere.

Ultimately, the US approach will include a heavy focus on building up Afghan government forces, the Afghan National Army and police, a job that will likely fall to US forces. NATO has authorized an Afghan force of about 134,000, but only about 90,000 are trained and being used for operations.

Many American officials have been critical of the government of Mr. Karzai, installed in 2004. While Karzai is considered well-intentioned, he has done little to stem widespread corruption in his government and has not effectively connected the central government to provincial or local governments across the country. The US and NATO allies have focused on strengthening the central government in Kabul. But Afghans, who live in a tribal society and have endured more than 30 years of war, have had difficulty identifying with the concept of a strong central government.

The new US strategy may take a different approach. A report from the United States Institute of Peace says the US should adopt a "bottom up" approach and focus less on the ability of the central government to govern.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees. "I have felt since I took this job that we needed to focus not just on the central government but also on the provincial and district governments, that these have always played an important role in Afghan history," he told a Senate panel recently.

The new strategy will also require the US to rethink its approach to neighboring Pakistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have found safe harbor in the mountainous border region of the two countries. The US conducts air strikes inside the Pakistani border to stem the flow of terrorists into Afghanistan. But many of these strikes result in civilian casualties.

"Cross-border raids into Pakistan to pursue insurgents have strained US relations with Pakistan at this critical juncture in the Afghan campaign," write John Nagl and Nathaniel Fick, two former US military officers working at a Washington think tank, in a recent edition of Foreign Policy magazine. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Nathanel Fick. He is a former Marine officer, not an Army officer.] While Pakistan is "inextricably linked" to the Afghanistan insurgency, the authors say, Pakistani support for US efforts is critical. But Pakistan is confronting its own dire political and economic challenges, meaning the government has been unable to support many US efforts, at least publicly. "Without Pakistani support, however, unilateral cross-border raids will create more blowback than they are worth," the authors conclude.

Ultimately, the solution in Afghanistan may involve solving the age-old conflict between the Arab states and Israel, says administration adviser Riedel in a book published by the Brookings Institution, a foreign-policy think tank, last year. Al Qaeda, and the Taliban to some extent, continue to be motivated by the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Riedel argues. If that conflict is resolved, Al Qaeda may go away.

"If Palestinians choose to make peace with Israel, the most fundamental point of Al Qaeda's narrative becomes irrelevant," Riedel writes. "In other words, making peace between Israelis and Arabs is not only wise policy in its own right, but also an extremely useful strategy for pulling the rug out from under Al Qaeda."

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