Transferring troops from Iraq for buildup in Afghanistan a costly shortcut
As President Barack Obama ponders whether or how to grant his Afghanistan commander’s urgent request for up to 60,000 more troops to expand the flagging war against Taliban insurgents, one obvious question arises: Why not simply transfer thousands of soldiers from nearby Iraq?
After all, the American intervention in Iraq is steadily winding down, with commanders in Baghdad even contemplating accelerating the scheduled Dec. 31, 2011, exit of the 124,000 American troops still there, most of them confined to massive bases where they spend their days training or packing up to leave.
Couldn’t some of those soldiers just be issued new travel orders and board transport flights to Kabul?
The answer, it turns out, is possibly — but at enormous cost, to the nation and the individual soldiers.
Logistically, such a shortcut would be a massive undertaking, involving transporting all troops by military air and moving tons of equipment by sea to Pakistan, and then by land into the war zone.
And it could only be accomplished, military planners say, by extending the deployments of troops in Iraq and shortening their dwell time at home — precisely the kinds of family and psychological stressors that the Pentagon has been trying to reduce as the incidence of combat-induced psychological ailments and suicides keeps rising.
In March, Obama approved 21,000 extra troops into Afghanistan, fulfilling a longstanding request to increase the number of U.S. troops to 68,000. But that’s not enough, according to Afghanistan’s top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal reportedly is asking for between 40,000 and 60,000 more troops, writing in an assessment that, without troops and a dedicated counterinsurgency effort, the war “will likely result in failure.”
Experts said they could move those troops from Iraq, given time and available aircraft. But those same experts said that simply pulling troops out of Baghdad and putting them in Kabul isn’t all that simple.
Some such moves have already been made, but in relatively small numbers.
Some 86 soldiers from the 100th Brigade Support Battalion had been headquartered in Balad for three months when the battalion got the word in March that it was soon to be transferred to southern Afghanistan.
Next up were 500 combat engineers from the 4th Engineer Battalion, who arrived in Baghdad in mid-February and were boarding C-17s for the four-hour flight to Kandahar less than a month later. Even that shift took more than a month, despite having some equipment already in place in Kandahar, said Capt. Jonathan Davis, rear detachment commander.
“It took a while for us to pack things up,” Davis said. “It was a process.”
One of the biggest hurdles is how to get the troops — and all of their equipment — to Afghanistan. To get to Iraq, troops fly on contracted commercial flights into Kuwait, but troops headed to Afghanistan go only by military air.
“In transitioning between Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to use air,” said Col. Brad Wakefield, operations chief for U.S. Army Europe, who’s been charged with deploying soldiers for years. “You can (only) get 100 personnel on a C-17.”
More challenging yet is how to get soldiers’ equipment to them. In planned deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, much of the equipment goes by rail from the unit’s home base in the States or Europe, then onto a ship to be offloaded in Kuwait for Iraq and Karachi, Pakistan, for Afghanistan, Wakefield said. Then, the equipment is driven into the war zone.
But that takes weeks.
“Do you have the soldiers without their equipment?” Wakefield said.
An unexpected deployment is more difficult than the sort of planned deployments the military is now practiced in.
“The deployment from Europe to Iraq or Afghanistan is set; it’s well-rehearsed and very predictable and it leverages air and sea,” Wakefield said.
Plus, units that will deploy through the end of fiscal 2010 have already been notified, he said. A twice-yearly “flow conference” at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., determines exactly when units will deploy based on the availability of airlift.
“If there were a request for troops, then everything has to be reviewed and revised,” Wakefield said.
And 40,000 is a lot of troops to move, said Andy Morris, a retired Army colonel and U.S. Army Europe historian.
“It’s a lot of troops without even thinking where you’d get them from. It’s more than 40 infantry battalions,’’ he said.
“Look how long it took us to build up the surge in Iraq — months.”
The Iraq “surge” was announced in January 2007, with 20,000 more troops — five additional brigades — and the extension of the tours of 4,000 Marines. The brigades started arriving that month, with the last arriving five months later.
Logistics is just one challenge. There are also the questions of wear and tear on the Army, and promises made to troops and their families about how long a combat tour will last and how long they’ll be permitted to remain at home before the next one.
After years of repeated deployments, extensions in theaters and shortened dwell times — accompanied by rising suicide rates and significant problems with PTSD — Army leaders are loathe to extend tours past a year or shorten time at home to less than a year.
“I would be surprised if [commanders] even asked for extensions of units that were in Iraq and have since deployed to Afghanistan,” Wakefield said. “Their boots on the ground starts when they entered Kuwait.”
An analysis of deployment data by the Rand Arroyo Center “shows the Army is at or near capacity in its ability to deploy soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to a report in Government Executive. A significant troop increase in Afghanistan would be difficult until next spring “without extending tours of troops in Iraq beyond 12 months and moving some troops directly from Iraq to Afghanistan,” it said. The report said neither option was appealing to Army leaders.
John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, said that if U.S. leaders believed it was vital to get U.S. troops into Afghanistan, they’d get them there, even if guidelines for tour lengths and dwell time would again fall by the wayside.
“If the Taliban were marching on Kabul in division strength and the decision was we weren’t going to let that happen, we’d get troops over there lickety-split,” he said. “But I don’t have the sense there is that sort of great urgency that there was in Iraq, where people thought the barn was on fire.
“The situation in Afghanistan is not pretty but we’re getting to the end of the fighting season and everything is going to be on hold more or less for the next six months.”
According to a United Press International report, Gen. Ray Odierno, top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he might extend the tours of 1,600 troops, part of a 120,000-troop force he has said he wants to keep in Iraq for two months after the elections in January. He would then draw down to 50,000 troops by the end of August.
Odierno told lawmakers earlier this month that he was sending 4,000 troops home a little ahead of schedule because of better security in the Anbar region. But he also said Iraq still needed attention.
“It’s important for us to stay engaged,’’ Odierno told the House Armed Services Committee. “We have spent a lot of money. We have spent a lot of personal sacrifices inside Iraq. And security is headed in the right direction. We don’t want to lose sight of that.’’
Troops in Iraq are now largely confined to sprawling bases resembling fortified towns, such as Baghdad’s Victory Base Complex. Generally forbidden to patrol, they spend their time training, maintaining equipment and packing up unneeded material for shipment out of Iraq.
Some soldiers have said they were bored, and suggested they ought to move on to Afghanistan.
But with casualties in Afghanistan higher this year than ever, and Iraq casualties diminishing, it has unexpectedly become the more attractive deployment destination for some.
“As a spouse, what you care about is which is safer,” said Lynn Bartels, whose husband is with the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Her husband’s unit spent 14 months in Iraq, came home last fall and was scheduled to go to Iraq again at the beginning of 2010.
Now they wonder whether they’ll go instead to Afghanistan.