With an eye on a drawdown, U.S. growing its force in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States is sending more troops and materiel to Afghanistan, growing its presence there to create conditions that will facilitate the force-reduction plan unveiled last weekend at the NATO summit.
The transition plan calls for the international forces to hand over security control to Afghan forces over the next four years, and includes a drawdown of U.S. forces that will begin in July 2011. U.S. officials cited recent security gains but also acknowledged that they are deploying an Army infantry battalion of 700 men to bolster special operations forces in training of local Afghan community police; they are requesting an additional Marine Expeditionary Unit in the south; they are sending in tanks with precision firepower and they will continue to ruffle Afghan feathers with night raids that are considered critical to taking insurgent commanders off the battlefield.
As with the surge of troops that President Barack Obama announced a year ago, the second in command of the U.S. military in Afghanistan said that U.S. forces must first draw up — and push the Afghan forces yet harder to be ready to take the reins — before they can begin the hoped-for drawdown.
“It’s always been that way,” Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who is also commander of the ISAF Joint Command, said in an interview at his Kabul headquarters. “That’s what all the additional forces have come for. That’s why the Afghan National Security Forces, the size has grown significantly. That’s why civilian agencies are working hard to train the Afghan government officials. All those things continue to ... produce the effect that you need, to be able to transition.”
The dual-sided strategy comes at a time of reckoning for the international effort in Afghanistan. The populations of the United States and the other key countries supplying forces are tired of the war and its exorbitant cost. Even the Afghans appear to be losing patience.
Just ahead of the NATO summit, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Washington Post that night raids are intrusive. He called for them to stop, and also called for a reduction of the international forces.
U.S. officials downplayed the rift, saying Karzai was simply expressing popular concerns over aggressive military tactics.
But Obama stated that counterterrorism efforts will likely go on long after the 2014 goal date for transition. And he said that Karzai needs also to recognize U.S. concerns considering its investment in Afghanistan.
“We have to be sensitive to his concerns and the concerns of the Afghan people. We can’t simply tell them what’s good for them,” Obama said at a post-summit news conference. “On the other hand, if we’re putting in big resources, if we’re ponying up billions of dollars, if the expectation is that our troops are going to be there to help secure the countryside and ensure that President Karzai can continue to build and develop his country, then he’s got to also pay attention to our concerns as well.”
For Rodriguez, who as top operations commander is caught in the crossfire of this dispute, the controversy is “just the normal balancing act.”
“Just like President Obama has to talk to his constituents, so does President Karzai,” Rodriguez said.
Leaders tried to frame the NATO summit in Portugal as a path toward ending the conflict that has so tired their constituencies. It also comes just weeks ahead of a December review of the war strategy at the White House.
But on the ground, the prospect of a less intrusive battle plan is still some way off, as U.S. forces work to consolidate initial advances on the battlefield and to make additional gains.
“The opportunity during the winter to get to someplace and expand some of the security areas is what everybody is trying to take advantage of,” Rodriguez said. “Part of the transition piece that’s important, also, is that it has got to be irreversible. So you have to maintain that irreversibility over time. That requires Afghans to have not only matching commitment, but to improve their capacity in their security forces and their justice system to continue to move forward.”
Ahead of the December review, the U.S. military has requested to push last year’s surge numbers to their limit. One senior U.S. official confirmed that a request is in for an additional Marine Expeditionary Unit, normally about 2,200 men. It is not clear whether that falls into the cap for the surge forces or if that will surpass the surge limit.
Rodriguez confirmed that a battalion was being deployed to fill a special operations forces shortfall in training the controversial community police forces in areas where the Afghan National Police was not developed enough yet to reach.
He said the deployment of an M-1 tank company was in answer to “conditions on the battlefield” in the southwestern Helmand province. The company of 14 tanks offers “great mobility, great sites” and “great ability to focus significant combat power,” Rodriguez said.
All of this comes, he said, with the aim of creating the conditions for transition, whether by clearing more areas or building the Afghan forces to take over. Some areas were ready, he said. But he acknowledged that in other areas, those conditions were still being carved out.
“We are still looking at building up,” he said, “while the point of transition is changing the balance of power.”
Key to the transition plan is the premise that Afghan security forces, after years of hiccups, can be ready to hold control and allow local government to step in. This is particularly dubious in the case of the police force, which has been plagued by corruption and an inability to hold on to its recruits, which Rodriguez described “like a hole in the bottom of the glass.”
The challenge and the current focus, Rodriguez said, is developing leadership at the speed in which the army and the police are expanding and devising ways to tackle attrition and entice recruits to re-enlist.
“They are focusing on the right things,” he said. “Those are the real factors they need to be able to overcome to sustain the forces effectively.”
He added that the expansion and mentoring of Afghan forces has “given them the courage to do what they know is right but they haven’t had the confidence to do in all cases in past or maybe as much as they needed to.”
Rodriguez said he was still confident in the plan to stand up community police forces, despite concerns that similar efforts in the past were hijacked by local warlords. While he acknowledged that in some areas where local governance was not representative, warlords were able to manipulate such forces, in areas where there was a strong community council or shura, those forces were working to protect the people.
“It is more than just police,” Rodriguez said. “It’s the whole process of bringing together their government, their security forces and the people. We have seen where conditions are right, it can be effective.”
Rodriguez said he thought that as an “aspirational goal,” the 2014 date for handover is “an achievable objective.”
“I think that President Karzai was also using that for a way to get some motivation and urgency in both in his security forces and, I think, for his people,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think either the international community or the Afghan people want this to go on forever. They want to succeed. They want to have a better life in the future.”