Support Sought In Afghan Mission

U.S. Army Spec. Kyle Stephenson calls in a mortar strike on a Taliban position during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Spec. Kyle Stephenson calls in a mortar strike on a Taliban position during a firefight in eastern Afghanistan. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan now believe they need about 20,000 additional troops to battle a growing Taliban insurgency, as demands mount for support forces such as helicopter units, intelligence teams and engineers that are critical to operating in the country's harsh terrain.

The troop requests, made in recent weeks, reflect the broader struggles the U.S. military faces in the Afghan war. Fighting has intensified, particularly in the country's eastern region, where attacks are up and cross-border infiltration of insurgents from Pakistan is on the rise. U.S. troop deaths in 2008 are higher than in any other year since the conflict began in 2001.

The Pentagon has approved the deployment of one additional combat battalion and one Army brigade, or about 4,000 troops, set to arrive in Afghanistan by January. Commanders have already requested three more combat brigades -- 10,500 to 12,000 troops -- but those reinforcements depend on further reductions from Iraq and are unlikely to arrive until spring or summer, according to senior defense officials. Now, U.S. commanders are asking the Pentagon for 5,000 to 10,000 additional support forces to help them tackle the country's unique geographic and logistical challenges.

Afghanistan's rugged mountains, bitter winters and primitive infrastructure pose a major hurdle as the U.S. military seeks to build up its combat forces there. The conditions contrast with those in Iraq, where roads, runways and built-up urban areas helped absorb nearly 30,000 U.S. forces during the troop "surge" last year.

The heavy current demands on support forces could constrain U.S. commanders in Afghanistan as they push for reinforcements. Those forces, many in the Army Reserve, have been stretched thin by officer shortages and some of the heaviest deployments in the U.S. military. In Afghanistan, where about 32,000 U.S. troops now serve, those support forces are doubly burdened because they often assist non-U.S. NATO and Afghan forces.

U.S. support troops "are in huge demand," Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, said at a news conference this month. "Quite frankly, it's something that concerns us as we look at what is going to be required in Afghanistan to build up that infrastructure."

Afghanistan's austere environment means the military cannot simply redirect the flow of heavy, medium and light forces from Iraq, said Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We need bed-down spots for those forces, infrastructure that would support them," Cartwright said in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Are we to keep them in centralized enclaves? Are we going to start to get them out into the country? That means that you have to have a basing construct that allows that, and the mobility, and the communications to allow that," he said.

The pressing needs in Afghanistan include a U.S. aviation brigade with about 2,500 troops and attack and transport helicopters; three battalions of military police totaling more than 2,000 troops; as well as Army and Navy engineers, combat hospitals, bomb-clearing teams, and civil affairs and psychological operations soldiers, according to Brig. Gen. Michael S. Tucker, the top commander for day-to-day military operations in Afghanistan.

Equally essential are intelligence and surveillance capabilities, such as Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, that provide full-motion video of the battlefield, said Tucker, deputy chief of staff of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led command based in Kabul.

NATO itself is "grossly under-resourced" in helicopters and intelligence equipment, further taxing the United States, said a former senior military official who served in Afghanistan.

"The shortage of full-motion video reduces the amount of enemy that you can monitor; it reduces your eyes," Tucker said. "You just can't give me enough" intelligence-gathering gear, he added.

Insurgent violence is escalating in Afghanistan, where the toll in U.S. troop deaths has reached 150 this year, in contrast to 117 for all of 2007. Overall attacks in the country are up about 25 percent from January to October this year, compared with the same period last year, according to ISAF data.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company