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Polls Down; More Troops Needed

One thing has already become crystal clear in the weeks since the Obama administration sent 17,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan. They didn’t send enough troops.

The nation’s highest ranking military officer, Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen, confirmed as much yesterday speaking on CNN when he said the situation in Afghanistan is “deteriorating.” That’s the state of affairs even though U.S. and NATO troop strength in Afghanistan is at the highest level ever and after the Marines launched the largest U.S. military offensive to date in the Helmand valley earlier this summer.

Mullen counseled patience, that the administration’s new strategy and new commanders were only now being put in place. That counsel comes as new polls that show support for the war is declining as it enters its ninth year. It’s not surprising when the only news out of Afghanistan is bad.

The top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal is due to hand in his strategy review and plan for the way forward within the next couple of weeks. It is expected to include a request for more troops. The Obama administration must use this opportunity to define the problem in Afghanistan and provide a solution that the American people can understand.

A major offensive is needed in Afghanistan. The Taliban currently have the initiative and that initiative must be broken. War in the modern era is all about perceptions. The perception among Afghans and the world community is that the “insurgent network” in Afghanistan is winning.

Former Afghan commander retired Gen. David Barno told the Senate Armed Services Committee back in February that 2009 would largely be a holding action, focused on securing the country for elections, and that it wouldn’t be until 2010 that the U.S. and NATO launch a counteroffensive. Waiting for next year’s fighting season to mount a counteroffensive will be too long.

There are about 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The Marine Expeditionary Brigade went into Helmand. The Army Stryker brigade is operating in the Kandahar area. An additional Army Combat Aviation Brigade is also now in the country. Almost an entire brigade of U.S. troops is tied down training the Afghan security forces, a necessary mission, but it removes a lot of combat power needed for offensive operations.

At least four more maneuver brigades and an additional combat aviation brigade must be sent to Afghanistan. It’s too late to get many of those troops in country before the fighting season ends; but plans must be set in motion to move them there and have them ready to begin offensive operations as soon as the snows melt next spring. It’s also likely that fighting will remain intense in the south throughout the long winter.

Kandahar must not be allowed to fall to the Taliban. If a Tal Afar style operation is needed, where the city is encircled and entry and exit controlled and troops flooded into the city itself, then so be it. Strategically, it is much too vital to lose. Securing Kandahar and eliminating Taliban cells operating there should be an immediate objective.

There are logistical challenges to sending and supplying such a large force in austere Afghanistan. They are surmountable.

At the moment, the biggest obstacle is Iraq. The U.S. still has a large land army, with some of its premier combat units, tied down there, at a time when freedom of operation has been severely curtailed because Iraqis want the U.S. out. It’s time to accept a high level of risk in Iraq to free up troops, helicopters and resources for Afghanistan.

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