When it comes to deploying additional forces to Afghanistan, the Pentagon confronts an infrastructural problem summed up by one senior military official: "Iraq is stuck in 1950, Afghanistan is stuck in 1310."
President Obama's decision on deploying more troops to Afghanistan is still a week or so away. But operating under the assumption that more forces may be headed there in the coming months, Pentagon planners have been trying to figure out how fast they can get troops and equipment on the ground.
The bottom line: Afghanistan's terrible infrastructure means that any surge of troops there could be more like a slow roll, compared with Iraq.
"I anticipate that as soon as the president makes a decision, we can probably begin flowing some forces pretty quickly after that," Mr. Gates told reporters Thursday. "But it is a bigger challenge than certainly was the case in Iraq."
After President Bush decided to surge forces into Iraq, it took roughly five months for about 30,000 forces to hit the ground – about a brigade per month plus supporting forces.
Afghanistan, however, is a landlocked country with few serviceable roads, making air transport of personnel and equipment the only practical choice. But the country only has two airfields – in Kandahar in the south and Bagram in the northeast. That limits the rate at which forces and their equipment can be deployed.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, saw these limits first hand last week. He sat in a C-17 military jet on the Kandahar airfield tarmac for an hour and a half before the jet could be off-loaded. And that was at 4 a.m.
This year has already seen a tremendous growth in the number of American forces on the ground in Afghanistan. The US added about 22,000 troops between January and June, pushing force strength to 58,000 in July. More troops have been added since the summer, and there are now about 68,000 troops there.
The more forces Mr. Obama sends, the harder it will be to deploy them quickly. But Mr. O'Hanlon says it can happen.
"There is a complexity here, there are reasons that it can get harder and slower, but the basic proposition of getting 30,000 to 40,000 more forces there is a job we can basically get done in six months," O'Hanlon says. "We've already done it before."
There are also as many as 2,800 "enabling forces" in Afghanistan already operating in supporting roles – security and construction, for example, that will ease the blow of deploying more forces in the coming months, according to the Pentagon.
The Pentagon will need a decision from Obama soon if it is to get forces on the ground during the winter months in preparation for spring, when combat operations heighten. Asked if that decision could come as soon as next week, Gates smiled.
"We'll have the decision when we have it," he said.
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