Afghanistan surge faces skeptical public, lawmakers
(See an updated version of this story here.)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s bold plan to push an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan but begin drawing down U.S. forces in summer 2011 contrasts sharply with the assessment of military experts, including his own top general in Kabul, that the United States faces a long road ahead in the eight-year-old war.
In his blunt late-summer assessment of the faltering war effort, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, warned that Americans must gird themselves for a “long-term” fight that does not lend itself to quick fixes and that will require “patience and commitment” from political leaders.
During a visit to Afghanistan last year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he expected U.S. troops would need a "sustained commitment" in the country for another three to four years.
But Obama’s vision for Afghanistan’s near future – committing nearly 100,000 U.S. troops to the country for the short-term and pressuring the Afghan government to step up its efforts in the next 18 months –emphasizes the idea that American intervention is not an open-ended promise in a war that has already cost 849 American lives, according to the latest Defense Department figures.
During his speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point on Tuesday evening, Obama called the troop surge “a vital national interest,” adding “these are the resources that we need to seize the initiative, while building the Afghan capacity that can allow for a responsible transition of our forces out of Afghanistan.”
“We will continue to advise and assist Afghanistan’s Security Forces to ensure that they can succeed over the long haul. But it will be clear to the Afghan government – and, more importantly, to the Afghan people – that they will ultimately be responsible for their own country.”
Obama’s supporters are already calling the president’s new Afghan plan a responsible step forward, just as they praised his earlier plan to pull combat troops out of Iraq over the next two years.
But critics are branding Obama’s Afghan timetable a surrender at worst and premature at best. Sen John McCain, R-Ariz, hours before the speech publicly praised the troop increase but added “the way that you win wars is to break the enemy’s will, not to announce dates that you are leaving.”
Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War, who was a member of a team of advisers to McChrystal last summer, said expecting the surge to lead to immediate improvements may be overly optimistic.
“We simply must not go in with the expectation that nine months after the beginning of this increase of forces into Afghanistan we will have a result as decisive as the result we had in Iraq,” she said.
The president’s plans call for the 30,000 additional U.S. troops to be in place in Afghanistan by next summer, although administration officials concede that may be an ambitious target. But Kagan said she doubts the flow of new troops into Afghanistan would be as swift as the surge of extra troops into Iraq two years ago, and therefore “decisive” operations against insurgents would not come as quickly.
In his Afghanistan assessment, McChrystal said the ranks of the Afghan National Army need to nearly double to 134,000 by fall 2010, and the long-term goal for the combined national army and police force needs to top 400,000. Obama’s surge plan calls for about 5,000 trainers among the troops, to help accelerate that timeline.
Yet retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who last month warned lawmakers against a quick, catch-all solution for Afghanistan, said that even with more trainers and funding, the Afghan National Army is limited in how fast it can grow. Logistics, equipment, and intelligence capabilities take years to develop, even under ideal circumstances, he noted.
“In the end, success is not something you can rush,” he said.
Senior administration officials said the July 2011 start date for troop withdrawals will be contingent both on security and the capability of Afghan security forces to take command of battle space.
And while details of the unit assignments and deployments have not yet been released, a senior administration official said a significant number of the new forces will be sent to southern Afghanistan, to bolster military missions there.
Kagan – who called the additional of 30,000 troops “matching the strategy to the reality on the ground” – said that the U.S. government’s previous attempts at a counterinsurgency campaign in the south and in Helmand province specifically have generally been under-resourced.
“And what we certainly haven’t seen so far is a campaign in southern Afghanistan that is designed to counter the Taliban in Kandahar and Helmand simultaneously,” she said. “Doing so, of course, could have a systemic effect on the Taliban’s ability to conduct operations throughout southern Afghanistan.”
However, such operations could cause significant new problems for nearby Pakistan.
Of the three-legged model the president offered, details of U.S. military involvement inside of Pakistan now or to come remain vague.
Reached immediately after the speech, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the chances of more U.S. troops stepping foot across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border would largely depend on Islamabad, but Washington is ready for the call.
“[Defense Secretary Robert Gates] has said several times that we stand ready to assist in any way that we can. We recognize that this is a struggle that is to be fought on both sides of the border,” said Whitman. “Where we can, and where Pakistan is amenable and comfortable with greater US military assistance, we’ll stand prepared to assist in any way that we can and that makes sense for us to do so.”
Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said Pakistani leaders he’s recently spoken with are anxious that an Afghanistan surge could push Al Qaida and Taliban insurgents deeper across their border.
The new surge also includes several non-military aspects, including more aid and support for Pakistan. Obama in March proclaimed that stability in both countries is the only solution for the region, and White House officials said an array of military and non-military programs included in the surge plan should help with that effort.
But Katulis said the U.S. approach to Pakistan is still largely a “we send them money and they do what we tell them” attitude, one that the Obama administration has tried unsuccessfully to alter. If the implementation of the new plan amounts to the same diplomatic approach, then little will change in terms of progress with the insurgents, Katulis said.
Thomas Ricks, the former Washington Post military reporter who is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a left-leaning Washington think tank that has supplied a large share of Obama's national security policy leaders, asked: "I have three questions tonight: Can the Afghan government stop being its own worst enemy, doing something about its corruption and abuses? Will the Pakistani government get serious about combating terrorism? And will the president be able to keep the American people behind him as American casualties increase?"
In a statement, the group's president, John Nagl, threw his weight behind Obama, saying, "a well-resourced counterinsurgency is the best option available."
The American public will also need convincing that the new plan is worth the new sacrifice it will entail. A Gallup poll released last month showed that 52 percent of citizens polled said the war in Afghanistan has not been worth the cost in money or lives, and as many people supported drawing down the number of troops deployed there (45 percent) as supported surging more troops (46 percent).
In his speech, Obama dismissed suggestions that keeping troop levels steady or reducing them sooner could result in a positive outcome.
“This would simply maintain a status quo in which we muddle through, and permit a slow deterioration of conditions there,” he said. “It would ultimately prove more costly and prolong our stay in Afghanistan, because we would never be able to generate the conditions needed to train Afghan Security Forces and give them the space to take over.”
Others have called for a much larger number of Afghanistan security forces above the 400,000 target. But senior administration officials dismissed those calls too, calling that target something they can reasonable aim for in the next five years.
Sending additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan will also be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, where Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials are expected to testify before numerous Congressional panels before the end of the week.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she does not believe a troop increase in Afghanistan will be supported by a majority of her members, meaning Obama may have to look to more Republicans for support.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has been speaking out against sending more troops for the last two months, instead advocating a speed-up in training for Afghan army and police forces.
“Polls show the Afghan Army is vastly more popular than the Taliban,” he told lawmakers and security analysts at a Capitol Hill speech in October. “Putting security in their hands is a sound strategy … By contrast, expansion of (U.S.) combat presence could feed the Taliban public relations machine.”
Staffers for Levin said he’ll wait to hear testimony from defense leaders on Obama’s plan before deciding whether he’ll support it. But he remains convinced that Afghan troops – and not U.S. forces – are the key to successfully stabilizing the region.
Last month, Democratic Reps. David Obey and John Murtha, both key leaders on the House Appropriations Committee, floated the idea of a “war tax” on middle-class families to defray the estimated $30 billion per year the troop increase will cost. Murtha told reporters he doubted the idea would move ahead, but wanted to remind voters of the potentially crippling expense.
At least some relief will come from NATO. Despite cautionary early reactions to Obama’s new plan from leaders in France and Germany this week, at an alliance conference last month Gates said he felt other countries were signaling a more receptive attitude to U.S. requests in Afghanistan.
“I think that in the days ahead it’s likely that we’ll see other countries, other partners, increase their commitment,” said Whitman, now that the president has made his decision, and after allowing their own countries time for similar deliberations.
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this story.
Updated 12-01-09, 10:30 P.M.