The Afghanistan Surge

Thursday, February 1, 2007

WHILE THE country debates the Bush administration's "surge" of American troops into Baghdad, a similar American buildup has begun in Afghanistan. As in Iraq, it comes in response to rapidly escalating violence, and in Afghanistan, too, one question is whether the reinforcements are too little or too late.

By extending the deployment of a brigade of the 10th Mountain Division even as the 82nd Airborne begins to arrive, the Pentagon will bring the U.S. troop level to 24,000. That's 50 percent more than at this time last year and about six times the number of American soldiers who were in Afghanistan at the time of the battle for Tora Bora, in early 2002. The administration, led by Vice President Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, stoutly resisted calls for expanding either U.S. or allied forces then. Let the record show: They were terribly wrong. Successful wars begin with a large troop deployment that tapers off as objectives are accomplished and security is restored. In Afghanistan U.S. troop levels started at rock bottom and have steadily risen over the past five years, even as security has worsened.

By most measures, there are still far fewer Afghan and foreign troops than are needed to secure the country. With the increase, the total number of U.S., NATO and other allied troops will be around 45,000, while there are about 40,000 soldiers in the new Afghan army. By contrast there are 146,000 coalition troops in Iraq in advance of the surge, and 134,000 Iraqi army troops. Yet Afghanistan is 50 percent larger than Iraq and has a larger population. What's more, many NATO troops in Afghanistan are constrained by their governments from fighting or even deploying in the areas where the Taliban insurgency is based. Only 80 percent of the troops requested by NATO commanders have been dispatched, and there are shortages of vital equipment such as helicopters.

The relative good news is that the administration is making a significant effort to correct a situation that, though deteriorating, remains far better than that in Iraq. In addition to the extra forces, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced last week that the White House would seek $10.6 billion in new funding for Afghanistan in the upcoming supplemental budget -- a huge addition to the $14 billion in aid that has been spent since 2001. Most of the new money would go toward a big expansion of the Afghan army and police, which would gain 150,000 new personnel, but $2 billion would be used for aid projects in a country where millions of people have yet to see any benefit from the government that replaced the Taliban.

The effort deserves support from Congress. But it's likely to fall short unless other NATO countries are willing to similarly increase their commitments. Though Britain, Canada and the Netherlands carried the burden of the war in southern Afghanistan last year, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are among the countries that have kept their soldiers away from the war zone and tied them down with restrictions. The European Union has pledged just $780 million in aid for Afghanistan over the next four years. Ms. Rice now leads a U.S. campaign to round up more allied commitments over the next several weeks. She can only hope the belated but essential American escalation will give her some leverage.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company