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Who Gets More: Afghanistan or Iraq

Stung by a brazen Taliban attack on an American outpost in Northeastern Afghanistan that left 9 U.S. troops killed and 15 wounded, the top military commander made clear that Afghanistan will no longer be an “economy of force” mission. Commanders in Afghanistan have long had to make do with what they can get, as the war in Iraq received the vast bulk of men and material.

That is about to change. Speaking to reporters Wednesday at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Michael Mullen said every military leader he spoke to in Afghanistan called for more troops. They also emphasized the difficulty and the complexity of the fighting in Afghanistan, he said.

The terrain alone in Afghanistan makes for a formidable enemy with high mountain ranges and narrow valleys that restrict and channel movement. The vast open spaces, piss-poor road network and widely distributed population mean helicopter is the only way to get from point A to B. I’ve been out on patrol with American soldiers humping loads up and down those mountains in that thin air, and they move at a snails pace.

As countless armies before ours have learned, it is a hell of a tough place to fight. In my frequent encounters in Afghanistan with former mujaheddin, I always came away thinking these are the hardest of hard men, and I hope we don’t ever get into a protracted fight with these people. These are not the fat, track-suit wearing louts you see lounging around Baghdad cyber-cafes waiting to plant IEDs as soon as the American patrol moves along. No, the wiry and tough Afghans, hardened by their environment, are a totally different enemy. It’s well time our leaders devoted more troops, helicopters and money to Afghanistan.

Mullen said they are working hard to find more troops to send “sooner rather than later.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates hinted that the roughly 3,500 Marines that have been fighting in southern Afghanistan might be repositioned to another part of the country once French reinforcements arrive in the area, although, the Marines are scheduled to come home in November.

Mullen provided some details on the attack on the outpost in Konar, saying that the attackers numbered “several hundreds” and were clearly well armed, well trained and the attack itself was well thought out. Interestingly, he said eight of the nine dead American troops “all died basically in the same spot.” That implies they might have been in a bunker or a building that was attacked with an explosive charge.

Mullen talked extensively about the border region and the fact that the war in Afghanistan cannot be fought successfully without addressing the sanctuaries and insurgent transport routes along the border. He said they’re seeing large numbers of insurgents and foreign fighters flowing across the Pakistan border into Afghanistan. “This movement needs to stop. We simply must all do a better job, of policing the border region and eliminating the safe havens, which serve today as launching pads for attacks on coalition forces.”

The “all” in that statement included NATO, the U.S., the Afghans and of course the most important border player, Pakistan. Mullen highlighted Pakistan as providing safe havens for training and freedom of movement across the border. He said that a “syndicate” of different groups who have not worked together in the past have recently joined forces to launch attacks in the border region. Gates was quick to dismiss any notion that troops are being massed for a cross-border attack into Pakistan.

A surge of new troops to Afghanistan is in the making. Question is, with the last of the Iraq surge brigades just coming home, where are they going to find those additional units?

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