Doubts emerge over U.S. troop boost for Afghanistan

WASHINGTON  – Sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan enjoys broad U.S. political support, from President Barack Obama on down, but some analysts — both in and outside government — are not convinced by the plans.

They question whether extra soldiers and Marines will be able to stabilize the country and suggest doubling the number of U.S. troops to more than 60,000 could increase resentment among Afghans toward foreign forces.

More broadly, they also question whether the aim of building a modern democratic Afghanistan is achievable or necessary to protect U.S. national security and whether it is a good use of an overstretched U.S. military.

Obama, who discussed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with top military officials at the Pentagon on Wednesday, will have to decide how much to heed their concerns as his new administration inherits the Bush-era conflicts.

“I think that Barack Obama would do well to think carefully before he makes Afghanistan into Obama’s War,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired U.S. Army colonel who is a professor of international relations at Boston University.

Insurgent violence in Afghanistan has risen sharply in the past two years to its highest level since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001 for harboring al Qaeda leaders responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States.

“We don’t want to see Afghanistan be a place in which violent Islamic radicals intent on killing Americans have sanctuary. Beyond that, we don’t have any serious interests in Afghanistan,” Bacevich said.

“Do we need to transform Afghanistan politically, economically and socially in order to achieve those modest interests?”

MODEST GOALS

Such thinking is increasingly reflected in official statements. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week the United States should set modest, near-term goals.

But Gates — who has stayed on from the Bush administration — has backed requests by U.S. Army General David McKiernan, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, for up to 30,000 more U.S. troops over the next 12 to 18 months.

As a presidential candidate, Obama said Afghanistan was the central front in the U.S.-declared war on terror and promised to send at least two more brigades — about 7,000 troops.

One brigade is already deploying, on orders issued under Bush, so Obama can be expected to send at least one more. He will soon have to decide how much further he wants to go.

U.S. officials always stress that sending more troops would be part of a broader strategy involving efforts to improve Afghanistan’s economy, fight corruption, tackle the opium trade and rapidly grow Afghan security forces to lead the fight.

But independent analysts and some U.S. military officers do not believe the Pentagon has made a compelling case for sending extra U.S. forces or explained how they would be used.

“I think you’ve got to ask questions … to stop yourself from sleepwalking into a mess,” said a U.S. military officer who has served in Afghanistan.

“We’ve got to wake up from the sleepwalk and make sure what we’re putting there has a clear purpose.”

COMMANDERS WANT MORE

U.S. commanders say extra troops will provide security for elections due later this year and enable NATO forces to hold onto areas once they have been cleared of insurgents, allowing time for economic development and establishment of essential services to win over local people from the Taliban.

But Rory Stewart, a British former diplomat who journeyed on foot across Afghanistan in 2002 and set up a foundation to revive the center of Kabul, said only Afghans could ultimately establish lasting stability in their own country.

“It seems to me that the 30,000 troops is a sort of arbitrary number and a way of just pumping more resources and more troops behind a variant on the old, failed policy,” he said.

Stewart, director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, suggested the West had become fixated with Afghanistan even though al Qaeda militants in tribal areas of Pakistan posed a much greater threat.

“What’s happening over the border in Afghanistan, by comparison, in terms of regional stability, international terrorism, is a sideshow,” he said.

But sending more troops to Afghanistan has become more popular in Washington, partly due to U.S. success in Iraq.

Violence in Iraq plummeted after a 2007 “surge” of forces during which commanders stressed counter-insurgency tactics focused on protecting local populations to win their support.

Gian Gentile, a U.S. Army colonel, has become a prominent critic of the idea that the turnaround in Iraq was mainly due to the surge, arguing that the causes were far more complex and sometimes not the result of U.S. military action.

He said it would be dangerous to apply the same model in Afghanistan and expect a similar turnaround.

“The debate on Afghanistan, within the Army in terms of operations and tactics, has really been influenced by this sense of what we think has happened in Iraq, this sort of almost hyper-confidence in this new doctrine,” Gentile said.

“We may be pushing ourselves in a direction where we think that American military power can change and make a difference in things where maybe it really can’t.”

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