Troop surge sought in Afghanistan
U.S. commanders say more support needed for mission
WASHINGTON – U.S. commanders in Afghanistan now believe they need about 20,000 additional troops to battle a growing Taliban insurgency, as demands mount for support forces such as helicopter units, intelligence teams and engineers that are critical to operate in the country’s harsh terrain.
The troop requests, made in recent weeks, reflect the broader struggles the U.S. military faces in the Afghan war. Fighting has intensified, particularly in the country’s eastern region, where attacks are up and cross-border infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan is on the rise. U.S. troop deaths in 2008 are higher than in any other year since the conflict began in 2001.
The Pentagon has approved the deployment of one additional combat battalion and one Army brigade, or about 4,000 troops, set to arrive in Afghanistan by January. Commanders have already requested three more combat brigades – 10,500 to 12,000 troops – but those reinforcements depend on further reductions from Iraq and are unlikely to arrive until spring or summer, according to senior defense officials. Now, U.S. commanders are asking the Pentagon for 5,000 to 10,000 additional support forces to help them tackle the country’s unique geographic and logistical challenges.
Afghanistan’s rugged mountains, bitter winters and primitive infrastructure pose a major hurdle as the U.S. military seeks to build up its combat forces there. The conditions contrast with those in Iraq, where roads, runways and built-up urban areas helped absorb nearly 30,000 U.S. forces during the troop “surge” last year.
The heavy current demands on support forces could constrain U.S. commanders in Afghanistan as they push for reinforcements. Those forces, many in the Army Reserve, have been stretched thin by officer shortages and some of the heaviest deployments in the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, where about 32,000 U.S. troops now serve, those support forces are doubly burdened because they often assist non-U.S. NATO and Afghan forces.
U.S. support troops “are in huge demand,” Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army’s vice chief of staff, said at a news conference this month. “Quite frankly, it’s something that concerns us as we look at what is going to be required in Afghanistan to build up that infrastructure.”
Afghanistan’s austere environment means the military cannot simply redirect the flow of heavy, medium and light forces from Iraq, said Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “We need bed-down spots for those forces, infrastructure that would support them,” Cartwright said in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Are we to keep them in centralized enclaves? Are we going to start to get them out into the country? That means that you have to have a basing construct that allows that, and the mobility, and the communications to allow that,” he said.
The pressing needs in Afghanistan include a U.S. aviation brigade with about 2,500 troops and attack and transport helicopters; three battalions of military police totaling more than 2,000 troops; as well as Army and Navy engineers, combat hospitals, bomb-clearing teams, and civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers, according to Brig. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, the top commander for day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan.