Afghanistan: Surge and surge again

Tony Cordesman is speaking for himself and, perhaps, getting a bit ahead of things when he declares in this morning’s Times of London that the U.S. will need several tens of thousands of new troops in Afghanistan, on top of the 21,000 new troops President Obama has already sent. But probably he’s not very far ahead of things.

The Obama administration has been a bit schizophrenic about what to do in Afghanistan. This can be taken as a sign of lucidity, not confusion: It was easy enough to believe things were going fine there, as long as you didn’t mind being wrong. Once you accept that things are going very badly indeed, it’s hardly obvious what to do about it. In a classic Bob Woodward piece in the Washington Post six weeks ago — insidery, blind-sourced, riveting — the king of access journalism depicted the conflict between soldiers and politicos who wanted a huge new troop surge, and those who wanted a small supplementary force to accompany a change in strategy — but who were leery of bulking up because it would leave the Afghans thinking this isn’t, in the end, their own war to solve. Here’s the key excerpt from Woodward’s piece. “Nicholson” is a senior Marine commander. “Jones” is James Jones, Obama’s National Security Advisor, and some of the conjecture I’ve read suggests he’s probably Woodward’s source. Anyway:

During the briefing, Nicholson had told Jones that he was “a little light,” more than hinting that he could use more forces, probably thousands more. “We don’t have enough force to go everywhere,” Nicholson said.

But Jones recalled how Obama had initially decided to deploy additional forces this year. “At a table much like this,” Jones said, referring to the polished wood table in the White House Situation Room, “the president’s principals met and agreed to recommend 17,000 more troops for Afghanistan.” The principals — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; Gates; Mullen; and the director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair — made this recommendation in February during the first full month of the Obama administration. The president approved the deployments, which included Nicholson’s Marines.

Soon after that, Jones said, the principals told the president, “oops,” we need an additional 4,000 to help train the Afghan army.

“They then said, ‘If you do all that, we think we can turn this around,’ ” Jones said, reminding the Marines here that the president had quickly approved and publicly announced the additional 4,000.

Now suppose you’re the president, Jones told them, and the requests come into the White House for yet more force. How do you think Obama might look at this? Jones asked, casting his eyes around the colonels. How do you think he might feel?

Jones let the question hang in the air-conditioned, fluorescent-lighted room. Nicholson and the colonels said nothing.

Well, Jones went on, after all those additional troops, 17,000 plus 4,000 more, if there were new requests for force now, the president would quite likely have “a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment.” Everyone in the room caught the phonetic reference to WTF — which in the military and elsewhere means “What the [expletive]?”

Nicholson and his colonels — all or nearly all veterans of Iraq — seemed to blanch at the unambiguous message that this might be all the troops they were going to get.

Jones, speaking with great emphasis to this group of Iraq veterans, said Afghanistan is not Iraq. “We are not going to build that empire again,” he said flatly.

Unless, you know, they need to. Today’s Wall Street Journal has another fascinating and complex story (under the headline “Taliban Now Winning,” which doesn’t capture all the nuance, but still) suggesting Obama’s handpicked ISAF commander, Stanley McChrystal, may ask for the 10,000 extra-extra U.S. troops his predecessor was denied.

All of this still seems to be the object of considerable internal disagreement. What’s certainly true is that Afghanistan is now deadlier for Western troops than ever before. 2009 looks set to pass 2008 as the conflict’s deadliest year for ISAF troops sometime in September, with almost a third of the year still to go. The first troops of the Obama surge went to Wardak, Logar and Helmand provinces; the thousands designated for Kandahar, where they will very substantially outnumber the Canadians, began arriving last week.

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