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Afghan Troops, Not U.S: Sen. Levin


Eight years into a war that Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen acknowledged has been under-resourced from the beginning, a real debate is finally underway in Washington as to how many more U.S. troops and resources should be sent to Afghanistan.

Sen. Carl Levin, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, fresh off a trip to Afghanistan, called late last week for accelerating the growth of the Afghan army and police and more than doubling the size of both. Levin wants to see Afghan security force numbers expanded before more U.S. troops are sent there. Also, he said a significant amount of the equipment coming from Iraq should be transferred to the Afghan security forces to boost their mobility and combat power.

The Afghan army numbers roughly 90,000 troops, plans are to increase it to 134,000 by the end of next year; the Afghan police should number 82,000 by the same time. Levin said the Afghan army should go to 240,000 troops and the Afghan police to 160,000 by 2013.

Taking to the opinion pages of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Sens. John McCain, Joseph Lieberman and Lindsey Graham voice concerns that new Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s expected request for more troops will be shot down by lawmakers who have grown tired of the war. Writing that a U.S. defeat in Afghanistan would be a “devastating setback” for the nation, they call for a “significant increase” in American troops and fully resourcing McChrystal’s request.

“More troops will not guarantee success in Afghanistan, but a failure to send them is a guarantee of failure. As we saw in Iraq, numbers matter in counterinsurgency. Protecting the population and developing capable indigenous security forces are inherently manpower-intensive endeavors,” the senators write.

Levin’s call for doubling Afghan army and police numbers in two years is unrealistic. While any army can be rapidly expanded, that is, its ration strength can be rapidly increased, building a capable combat force is an altogether different matter. As we wrote recently, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, they rapidly expanded Afghan army numbers by conscription and the widespread use of “press gangs” to dragoon military age males. That army’s performance was abysmal.

Counterinsurgency demands a large constabulary force, not troops trained for high-intensity battles of fire and maneuver. Still, given the Taliban’s proven battlefield skill, it would be criminal to field “shake-and-bake” Afghan units simply to expedite a U.S. withdrawal from a depressing and bloody war.

Last week, I asked Center for a New American Security president and counterinsurgency smart guy John Nagl how fast Afghan forces can be expanded. Realistically, he said, building Afghan troops numbers to what Levin proposes, which Nagl also advocates, is a five year endeavor. The arrival of a brigade of advisers from the 82nd Airborne this month marks the first time the Afghan advising and training mission has been adequately resourced, Nagl said.

That’s just the beginning. Another 10,000 advisers on top of those now arriving will be needed to build Afghan security forces able to take over the security mission from U.S. troops, he said.

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