One of the most difficult challenges President-elect Barack Obama’s national security team faces is Obama’s vow to send thousands of U.S. troops to help defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Military experts agree that more troops are required to carry out an effective counterinsurgency campaign, but they also caution that the reinforcements are unlikely to lead to the sort of rapid turnaround that the so-called troop surge produced in Iraq after its start in 2007.
After seven years of war, Afghanistan presents a unique set of problems: a rural-based insurgency, an enemy sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, the chronic weakness of the Afghan government, a thriving narcotics trade, poorly developed infrastructure, and forbidding terrain.
U.S. intelligence reports underscore the seriousness of the threat. From August through October, the average number of daily attacks by insurgents exceeded those in Iraq, the first time the violence in Afghanistan has outpaced the fighting in Iraq since the start of the U.S. occupation in May 2003. Almost half of the insurgents’ attacks were directed against American and other foreign forces, while the remainder were focused on Afghan security forces and civilians.
“Afghanistan may be the ‘good war,’ but it is also the harder war,” said David J. Kilcullen, a former officer of the Australian army who recently left his job as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s senior adviser on counterinsurgency issues.
During the Bush administration, the Afghan conflict has taken a back seat to Iraq, where the U.S. military struggled to combat a virulent insurgency and tamp down an explosion of sectarian violence. According to the latest data from the military command in Baghdad, violence in Iraq has been rolled back to the levels of early 2004.
But violence in Afghanistan has climbed. The 267 allied military deaths this year are the highest ever. (The monthly total peaked at 46 in June and August but dropped to 12 in November, partly because of seasonal variations in the fighting, according to a count by icasualties.org.)
Declaring Afghanistan to be the central front in the struggle against terrorism, Obama talked during the campaign of sending at least two more combat brigades to Afghanistan — in effect staking the reputation of his new national security team on the outcome of that war, which appears to be stalemated, at best.
Obama and his aides have yet to outline a detailed strategy for precisely how many reinforcements would be sent and how specifically they would be employed.
But the Pentagon is already planning to send more than 20,000 additional troops in response to a request from Gen. David D. McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials say that force would include four combat brigades, an aviation brigade equipped with attack and troop-carrying helicopters, reconnaissance units, support troops and trainers for the Afghan army and the police.