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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Decision: Afghanistan

Soon, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to commit additional troops to Afghanistan. From the New York Times: Military Chief Says More Troops Needed for Afghan War. This announcement has been well-telegraphed, so that it comes as a surprise to nobody who pays attention. So far, I am pleased with the attention the White House has paid to Afghanistan.

As some of you know, I was there when the 17,000 additional troops arrived this year. One of my tasks was to help find places to put them, and in fact a handful of them replaced my team. So I was certainly happy to see them; happy to get back to family a little earlier than I expected.

The President could easily have dismissed the plans laid by the outgoing Bush administration to bulk up our presence in Afghanistan; I am grateful that he did not. I am committed to our presence in Afghanistan, and I believe that we are going to need to stay there for a very long time.

Which is why I found it disturbing that the objection raised by Senator Carl Levin (D), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, centered on a point he seems not to understand. According to the New York Times article linked above:
[Senator] Levin, who met with commanders and troops in Afghanistan during the congressional Labor Day recess, said that focusing on training Afghan Army and police units “would demonstrate our commitment to the success of a mission that is in our national security interest, while avoiding the risks associated with a larger U.S. footprint.”

He said emphatically that “these steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further increase in U.S. ground combat troops, beyond what is already planned to be deployed by the end of the year.”

Mr. Levin said new goals should be established for Afghan security forces: The Afghan Army, he said, should grow to 250,000 by the end of 2012, and the police to 160,000 by that date. The current target is 134,000 army personnel and 96,000 police by the end of next year.
Unfortunately, Senator Levin is not as familiar as he should be with the conditions on the ground as he should be, if he is going to start planning the end strength figures for the Afghan National Security Forces. We do see some success there, with some units performing magnificently. But it takes no specific knowledge of the performance ratings of the various units over there to know that simply training and enlarging the Security Forces is not going to get this job done. You need to know the people, you need to know the culture, and you really need to spend a sizeable amount of time in the ground there in order to understand those things.

I'll have a lot more to say on this in the future, but for now that will have to suffice. I'll close with Senator McCain's comments as reported in the NYT article linked above:
[Senator] McCain recalled that initial attempts in Iraq to shift the security burden to local forces was a colossal failure. “I’ve seen that movie before,” he said.

He lauded Mr. Obama’s decision earlier this year to send 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. Those extra combat troops, Mr. McCain said, were the correct priority — and he has said that more troops are “even more necessary now.”

Additional combat troops “are vitally needed,” Mr. McCain said, and warned that each day of delay “puts lives in danger.”

“We will need more U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, not less or the same amount we have today,” Mr. McCain said.


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