On the eve of President Obama’s meeting at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, plans to speed the flow of new troops to Afghanistan were revealed, even as the top military leadership tries to dial back expectations of a quick victory in the region Obama identified in campaign talking points last year as the “central front” in the “war on terror.” Obama promised to send more troops, more diplomats, more aid workers, more aid money, pretty much more of everything to Afghanistan.
Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a faster deployment timeline to meet requests from top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, for four additional combat brigades. “We could have two of those brigades there probably by late spring, and potentially a third by mid-summer, " Gates said. McKiernan wants those reinforcements deployed to the violence wracked southern part of the country. Deployments beyond those three brigades to that austere region would be delayed until more housing and operating bases can be built later this year, Gates said.
The publicly voiced concerns among some members of the policy establishment is that while the renewed commitment to pulling Afghanistan out of its downward slide is most welcome after the Bush administration’s relegation of the country to an “economy of force” mission, there has been too little discussion of strategic objectives. “I certainly would hope that we don’t let our operational policy get ahead of a clearly annunciated strategy which was one of our big pratfalls going into Iraq,” said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) during today’s hearing.
Gates attempted to inject a dose of reality into expectations of what those additional troops can achieve once they arrive in Afghanistan. "Afghanistan is the fourth or fifth poorest country in the world, and if we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience or money, to be honest.” U.S. objectives for Afghanistan must be kept “realistic and limited,” Gates said, “otherwise, we will set ourselves up for failure." The U.S. goal in Afghanistan is to prevent the area from becoming a terrorist base, he said.
Gates said he’s mindful of the lessons Afghan history holds for invading armies. “It’s not for nothing Afghanistan’s known as the graveyard of empires.” While willing to support the additional brigades and “enablers,” such as helicopters, McKiernan already requested, Gates said he would be “very skeptical” of any additional U.S. troop deployments. “Above all, there must be an Afghan face on this war… if [the Afghan people] think we are there for our own purposes, then we will go the way of every other foreign army that has been in Afghanistan.”
Our “highest priority” needs to be increasing the size and training of the Afghan Army, he said. “Ultimately, a strong Afghan national army and a capable, reasonably honest, Afghan national police, represents the exit ticket for all of us.” Gates said corruption is pervasive in Afghanistan’s government and reaches into “high levels” of government. NATO and the U.S. are trying to rapidly expand the Afghan army from its current size of 80,000 to 134,000, though Gates said he wasn’t sure whether even that increase would be enough to meet security demands. Many of the additional U.S. troops would deploy as trainers, he said.
Gates said military commanders are also working to redress the helicopter shortfall in Afghanistan, particularly the shortage of medevac helicopters. In Iraq, commanders speak of the “golden hour,” that wounded troops have a much higher chance of survival if they can be lifted to an aid station in under an hour. In Afghanistan, Gates said, it’s closer to two hours, because of the helicopter shortage and because U.S. troops are spread out across the country’s rugged terrain.
Obama was criticized during the presidential campaign last year when he said the lack of combat troops in Afghanistan forced an over-reliance on air strikes which often resulted in civilian casualties. Gates echoed those comments. “Civilian casualties are doing us enormous harm in Afghanistan,” he said, “and we have got to do better. I say that knowing full well that the Taliban use them as shields, but when we attack we are playing into their hands. My worry is that if the Afghans come to see us as part of the problem instead of the solution then we’re lost.” Gates said NATO allies request up to 40 percent of U.S. air strikes
Gates said military commanders had changed the rules-of-engagement, “in recent weeks,” so U.S. troops could now attack drug traffickers and drug labs linked to the Taliban.