Bush Faces Pressure to Shift War Priorities
Monday, December 17, 2007
With violence on the decline in Iraq but on the upswing in Afghanistan, President Bush is facing new pressure from the U.S. military to accelerate a troop drawdown in Iraq and bulk up force levels in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials.
Administration officials said the White House could start to debate the future of the American military commitment in both Iraq and Afghanistan as early as next month. Some Pentagon officials are urging a further drawdown of forces in Iraq beyond that envisioned by the White House, which is set to reduce the number of combat brigades from 20 to 15 by the end of next summer. At the same time, commanders in Afghanistan are looking for several additional battalions, helicopters and other resources to confront a resurgent Taliban movement.
Bush's decisions on Iraq and Afghanistan could heavily influence his ability to pass on to his successor stable situations in both countries, an objective his advisers describe as one of the president's paramount goals for his final year in office. They say Bush will listen closely to his military commanders on the ground before making any decisions on troops but is unlikely to do anything he believes could jeopardize recent, hard-won security improvements in Iraq.
Administration officials say the White House has become more concerned in recent months about the situation in Afghanistan, where grinding poverty, rampant corruption, poor infrastructure and the growing challenge from the Taliban are hindering U.S. stabilization efforts. Senior administration officials now believe Afghanistan may pose a greater longer-term challenge than Iraq.
"There's a real dilemma there for the U.S.," said retired Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the former commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. "In some ways, the paradox is you could make an argument that the insurgency is diminishing in Iraq and increasing in Afghanistan."
Administration officials said the White House is considering a range of steps to stem the erosion, including the appointment of a leading international political figure to try to better coordinate efforts in Afghanistan. European newspapers have focused on Paddy Ashdown, a British politician and envoy, but a former senior military officer said his appointment would be considered controversial and seems unlikely.
Bush also plans to step up his personal diplomacy with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and will soon start regular videoconferences with him aimed at more closely monitoring and influencing the situation there, officials said. Bush has long held such videoconferences with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Afghanistan is so poor and so starved for modern infrastructure, one senior administration official said, that it could well be "a longer, if not larger, challenge than Iraq." The senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the situation in Afghanistan is "not getting better. It's not getting worse. In a war footing, that's not good enough."
U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, is asking for an additional three battalions of troops from NATO countries -- the equivalent of another brigade combat team -- but colleagues believe that would not be enough. U.S. officials are doubtful that allies will provide all the requested troops, and predict Bush will be faced with a request for even more U.S. troops, possibly after attending a NATO summit in April in Bucharest, Romania.
The United States has about 26,000 troops in Afghanistan. NATO provides most of the additional 28,000 foreign troops in the country. Among NATO-led forces, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia have assumed the heaviest part of the combat burden alongside U.S. troops.
"I suspect that we will see increasing enemy pressure over time, which may well create demands for combat forces in the future beyond the three battalions cited now," Barno said.
U.S. officials said Bush may also consider revamping the current military structure in Afghanistan, which has McNeill serving alongside a four-star NATO commander. Restrictions by NATO members on how their troops can be used -- Germany, for instance, limits where its forces can be deployed -- have made it difficult to mount a coherent response to the Taliban resurgence. U.S. forces, which have been largely confined to a small part of the country in the east, have little presence in the south, where much of the insurgency has taken hold.