Will the U.S. Need More Troops in Afghanistan?

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Joe Raedle / Getty

Two U.S. Marines interact with Afghan men as they conduct a search of an area where shots were fired in Mian Poshteh, Afghanistan

The body count is changing in Afghanistan, for better and for worse: only six Afghan civilians were killed in U.S. air strikes last month — down from 89 in July 2008. The remarkable decline is a result of more restrictive rules in the use of the tactic ordered by General Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, McChrystal's prediction that U.S. and allied casualties will rise as ground forces go toe to toe with the Taliban is also coming to pass. While only eight U.S. soldiers were killed by roadside bombs in July 2008, last month saw 49 killed by insurgents. The rising casualty toll underscores the sense that the Taliban, which has the upper hand in many parts of the country, will be a tough nut to crack — a reality that has prompted speculation over whether McChrystal will have to ask for more U.S. reinforcements beyond the 68,000 troops already there or en route in order.

The Obama Administration's retooled Afghan strategy has only been in place since March. It's designed to marry a more robust military campaign against Taliban forces on the ground with beefed-up protection of Afghan civilians. A still faltering economic-development effort is intended to woo civilians away from the Taliban, which employs men in its militias and operates as a local administrative system. Finally, a growing Afghan army and national police — now 175,000 strong, though McChrystal and others have recommended doubling it in coming years — is supposed to enable U.S. and allied forces to come home, eventually.

The U.S. has invested more than $220 billion on Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion and is currently spending about $4 billion a month sustaining the war effort there. But despite such costs, there's a fear that for too long, the U.S. and its allies have been trying to win on the cheap. A report released on Aug. 11 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made clear that the U.S. needs to do more. "The deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan is conspicuous," it concluded. "Afghanistan requires a greater commitment of U.S. troops and civilians. The public should understand the sacrifices that will be required in the coming years." U.S. military and civilian officials told Senate investigators that progress in Afghanistan, if it comes, will be incremental. "They talked in terms of years — two, five and 10," the report warned.

The Taliban have expanded their "areas of influence" from just 30 of the country's 364 districts in 2003 to 160 by the end of 2008, according to Anthony Cordesman, a military expert who has been advising McChrystal. Insurgent attacks, he adds, jumped 60% from October 2008 to April 2009. Michael Vickers, the Pentagon's top civilian responsible for special-ops, said last month that the "immediate" objective in Afghanistan is "to shift that balance that has been favoring the insurgents the past few years." Just stopping that deterioration could take two years, he said, adding that "insurgency and counterinsurgency is a people-intensive business."

Pentagon officials suggest that McChrystal will eventually seek an additional 10,000 troops to arrive next year. His predecessor had sought such an increase, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates — cool to expanding the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan — put it on hold. Both he and President Obama want to see how this year's increase of 21,000 U.S. troops plays out before dispatching more. "This is something we can consider later, after we measure the implementation of our strategy," Gates told Obama, according to James Jones, the National Security Adviser, on CBS last weekend. There are also about 39,000 allied forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal is certainly preparing the ground for a request for more forces by emphasizing how well the Taliban is doing in advance of the Aug. 20 presidential election. "It's a very aggressive enemy right now," McChrystal told the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 8. "We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative." While Administration spokespeople said the headline atop the resulting story — "Taliban Now Winning" — was too pessimistic, it's clear that more troops may be needed to stave off a turn for the worse.

Lawrence Korb, a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan Administration, predicts that McChrystal will request reinforcements. "I think he'll ask for 10,000 more, and I think Obama will give them to him," says Korb, now with the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank. The President can unilaterally send such forces under a 2001 congressional resolution authorizing the Afghan campaign. And Korb doesn't think skittish Democrats will bring themselves to thwart the reinforcements by cutting off funding. "Obama will lose some Democrats," he predicts, "but he's going to get all the Republicans." As for those Democrats already calling Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam," Korb counsels perspective. "It's much more like the Iraq surge," he says of any future troop hike for Afghanistan. "In Vietnam, we went from 175,000 to 500,000, and here we're talking about maybe 10,000."

Still, the war in Afghanistan is nearing its eighth anniversary with no end in sight. The idea of pumping more U.S. blood and treasure into a conflict sure to drag beyond the 2012 presidential election may ultimately pit Obama's military advice against his political gut.