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.
"The Afghanistan insurgency has gotten significantly more intense," said Michael G. Vickers, assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations, who is working on a Bush administration review of Afghanistan strategy.
The deterioration has been pronounced in eastern Afghanistan, where cross-border infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan has risen 20 to 30 percent and overall attacks have gone up by about a third since April, compared with the same period last year. At the same time, roadside bombings in the east increased 40 percent, according to Brig. Gen. Mark A. Milley, deputy commander of U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan.
"There is no question" that insurgents have used sanctuaries in Pakistan to grow more skilled in infantry tactics such as raids, ambushes, small-arms gunfights, and the use of mortars and rockets, as well as suicide bombings, Milley said in an interview.
"Terrorists are flooding across our porous borders," Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak said in a recent Washington speech. He said the infiltration of more-sophisticated Taliban and foreign fighters has made 2008 "the bloodiest of recent years by a significant margin."
Meanwhile, the shortage of military resources is constraining the frequency and scope of U.S. offensive operations against insurgents. "You have to build a strategy that keeps you within the realm of your capabilities," Tucker said in an interview. Of the requested troop increase, Tucker said, "I'd like to get it tomorrow."
Any requests for troops must go up the military chain of command, from the senior officers in the field through Central Command and up to the military services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates must eventually sign off on any deployments.
"When I left for Afghanistan last week, my impression was that the requirement was for a total of three brigade combat teams, not four," Gates said at a Senate hearing in late September. "So these things change even while you're in the air."
For soldiers in Afghanistan, who often patrol at altitudes of 10,000 feet, helicopters are vital for troop movements, medical evacuation and avoiding roadside bombs, U.S. officers said. A shortage of rotary-wing aircraft to transport U.S. and allied forces is "fundamentally one of the problems we have in Afghanistan," said Vickers, the lead strategist for the CIA's covert action campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
U.S. combat engineers are already taxed and have assumed the added burden of building facilities for Afghan soldiers and police, so among the support troops in high demand are engineers who can build roads and runways and expand bases and insulate them for the harsh winters.
U.S. military police, another field in short supply, are needed to conduct counterinsurgency operations and train Afghan forces, particularly the fledgling police. NATO has failed to supply enough training teams, and with the planned doubling of the Afghan National Army to 134,000 by 2012, "this is just adding more to the bill," a senior U.S. military official said.
Civil affairs soldiers are also needed to support governance and development efforts, but currently they are so strained by deployments that many are spending more time in the war zone than at home, Vickers said. "We need more of them," as many as double the current number, he said.
That job is essential, U.S. officers said, to help foster a functioning government. "These people of Afghanistan are virtually on their knees begging for governance . . . and we are starving ourselves trying to do that," Tucker said. "There is so much corruption. . . . There are places where people have no choice but to accept the Taliban."