Do We Have Enough Troops for Afghanistan Surge?

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All of the options that President Obama is reportedly considering for troop increases in Afghanistan require tens of thousands of soldiers. The top commander there, General Stanley McChrystal, has requested at least 40,000, the high end of the options under consideration. But an in-depth investigation by Spencer Ackerman reveals that the American military may simply lack enough troops for that to be a viable option. This raises a major concern: what happens if we deplete the number of standing troops? With ongoing tensions with Iran and North Korea, a shortage of available brigades could risk emboldening America's antagonists. Should this change our thinking on Afghan troop levels?

  • Why We Don't Have The Troops  Spencer Ackerman explains. "If President Obama orders an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, he will be deploying practically every available U.S. Army brigade to war, leaving few units in reserve in case of an unforeseen emergency and further stressing a force that has seen repeated combat deployments since 2002." Ackerman finds "about 50,600 active-duty soldiers, serving in 14 combat brigades, and as many as 24,000 National Guard soldiers available for deployment." Of those, 19,000 are from "heavy brigades" supporting equipment such as tanks, which are not currently deployed to Afghanistan owing to the lack of paved roads. Moreover, any escalation is likely to last much longer than a single tour of duty, but troop brigades are required to return home for several months between each tour. If all available brigades were sent, two would be embarking on their fifth tour of duty.
  • 'Game-Changing'  Rachel Maddow insists that the report should get as much attention as possible. She calls it, "One giant, game-changing, brand new fact, reported by Spencer Ackerman today, that should change the whole way the country talks about and thinks about this war," she says. "This is so important. I mean, we talked about so many elements of the war effort. Talking about the actual constraints of what we are capable of doing. It is almost verboten in American politics, but it sounds like a hard sale and it needs to be considered here."
  • Pull Them From Iraq? Spencer Ackerman cites analyst and Reagan-era official Lawrence Korb, who "said a more realistic troop increase for Afghanistan would be 10,000 soldiers until the drawdown of troops from Iraq 'begins in earnest.' There are currently 120,000 U.S. troops remaining in Iraq, almost twice the total in Afghanistan, though Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, told Congress in September that he plans to reduce that total to around 50,000 by August 30, 2010. Alternatively, Korb said, Obama could speed up the pace of redeployment out of Iraq in order to relieve the stress on the force."
  • NATO Could Supply  In a follow-up, Ackerman notes that NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has signaled that NATO could increase its already significant presence in Afghanistan. "Anders Fogh Rasmussen says enigmatically that he thinks the NATO allies will pony up. And maybe they will, but it will break precedent, and the question of what they’d do remains, as does the related question of national caveats inhibiting the actions of troops from select NATO nations."
  • Politically Disastrous  Michael Cohen worries that such a large increase would cripple Obama's administration. "[P]residential administrations have a hard time walking and chewing gum at the same time. In other words, 100,000 troops in Afghanistan will suck up so much oxygen that it will almost certainly short-change other important efforts, and what's more, will subvert other goals. Instead of rebuilding AID, you will probably see more of its resources devoted to nation building in Afghanistan instead of long-term development in non-kinetic environments. Shifting the civil/military balance back to the civilian capacity side - good luck with that.  Getting more money out of Congress, which is already allocating $65 billion a year for the war in Afghanistan and facing mushrooming budget deficits for those civilian agencies. Not going to happen. Focusing the attention of policymakers on these key issues: even less likely."
  • Is It Too Late?  The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz suggests this is further evidence our window may be closing. "When McChrystal made his original requests at the end of the summer, his strategic review described a 12-month window for changing the dynamic of the war, a window that is rapidly shrinking -- even if the first deployments began in January, it's not clear that overall levels could rise until the spring, nearly eight months after his deadline, and I'm curious what effect that would have on the conflict."
  • No 'Practical Urgency'  Matthew Yglesias thinks any increase would be gradual. "I think this underscores the fact that even though it’s annoying, from the point of view of a political observer in Washington, to see the internal administration Afghanistan debate drag on like this there’s no particular practical urgency to making a decision. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has been scaled-up substantially in the two years, and further increases would need to be implemented over time."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.