Still Not Enough Troops for Afghanistan

BY Herschel Smith
8 years ago

The Captain’s Journal has been an advocate Operation Enduring Freedom for more than eight months, along with the commanders on the ground in Afghanistan. The top brass has heard, but apparently we haven’t been loud enough. General McKiernan is doing his part (as did his predecessor General McNeill who said Afghanistan was an under-resourced war).

The senior U.S. general in Afghanistan said Tuesday he is fighting the war with too few ground troops, and that even the reinforcements President Bush announced last week are insufficient. He said the shortage compels him to use more air power, at the cost of higher civilian casualties.

Speaking just hours after a new U.S. commander took charge in Iraq, Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that he realized the only way he would receive the additional ground forces he needs is for Washington to decide to divert them from Iraq.

McKiernan spoke in an interview with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived here Tuesday evening after presiding at a ceremony in Baghdad where Gen. Ray Odierno took over for Gen. David Petraeus as the top commander of the 146,000 American troops fighting that war.

McKiernan said his Washington bosses had “validated” his request for three more ground combat brigades, in addition to the Army brigade that Bush announced will deploy to Afghanistan in January instead of going to Iraq.

He said the brigade coming in January will merely fill an immediate need for more help in eastern Afghanistan and cited a need for at least 10,000 additional ground troops, beyond the 3,700 due early next year.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are headed in opposite directions: violence is down substantially in Iraq and U.S. troop levels are declining, whereas the fighting is heating up in Afghanistan and more U.S. troops are needed. It will fall to the next U.S. president to decide how to balance resources on both fronts.

McKiernan said he believed it was a question of when, not whether, he would get the troops he has requested.

“It’s a question of political decisions to be made to divert capabilities from Iraq to Afghanistan,” he said.

He disputed the notion that the U.S. and NATO war strategy has failed and needs to be overhauled.

“Our strategy of approaching counterinsurgency operations is a valid strategy here,” McKeirnan said. “Our problem is we don’t have enough resources to do it with.”

Several thousand more troops for Afghanistan have been announced, but it clearly isn’t enough. Without the needed boots on the ground, the over-reliance on heavy-handed air power is risking alienation of the population with unnecessary collateral damage and civilians casualties.  In counterinsurgency, loss of the population means loss of the campaign.

That constant contact with the enemy and security for the population is necessary should be obvious based on our Marines in Helmand coverage and commentary, and it was a counterinsurgency lesson re-learned by the commanders in the ISAF upon the initial engagement with the Taliban (h/t Small Wars Journal Blog).

Lt. Col. Kent Hayes knows all about the blood, sweat, and excruciating effort needed to lay the initial security piece of the counterinsurgency puzzle. The rangy executive officer for the 24th MEU explains that the Marines’ original plan to act as a roaming strike force in Helmand had to be torn up after the first battle with the Taliban. The enemy unexpectedly stayed and fought fiercely for more than a week rather than relinquish Garmsir. An estimated 400 insurgents died. Marine commanders immediately realized that the town was a critical resupply and logistics hub for insurgent operations throughout the province.

“Our original mission was to act as a quick-reaction force for the ISAF commander in Kabul so he could throw us at any escalating crisis in this area,” Hayes says. But Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, understood the strategic importance of Garmsir and instead ordered the marines to stay in the town and implement a classic counterinsurgency operation of “clear, hold, and build.” Hayes says that his troops are “not normally in the business of owning ground, but I guess you could say we’ve rented Garmsir for a while” …

Hayes is unequivocal in naming the key to the 24th MEU’s success in Helmand province: “It’s a real simple concept–we learned during this mission that the best way to combat this type of enemy is to mass forces and stay. We actually replaced a small British force that was spread thin trying to cover too much ground with too few troops. Instead, we flooded a town that was strategically important to the enemy with overwhelming forces. That’s the way you can win this kind of fight–with boots on the ground.”

The message could not be clearer. We need boots on the ground.  The Marines have proven that counterinsurgency can be successful in Afghanistan with the appropriate force size and strategy.


You are currently reading "Still Not Enough Troops for Afghanistan", entry #1300 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency and was published September 16th, 2008 by Herschel Smith.

If you're interested in what else the The Captain's Journal has to say, you might try thumbing through the archives and visiting the main index, or; perhaps you would like to learn more about TCJ.

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