U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Says Troop Level of 60,000 Will Be Needed for 3 to 4 Years

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

The United States will have to keep about 60,000 troops in Afghanistan for at least the next three to four years to combat an increasingly violent insurgency, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said yesterday, warning that 2009 will be "a tough year."

At least 10,000 additional U.S. troops are required in Afghanistan beyond the 17,000 that President Obama announced Tuesday would go to Afghanistan this spring or summer, with decisions on two additional brigades -- one focused on training and one on combat -- expected later this year, said Gen. David D. McKiernan, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan.

"This is not a temporary force uplift," McKiernan said at a Pentagon news conference. "For the next three to four years, I think we're going to need to stay heavily committed and sustain in a sustained manner in Afghanistan." McKiernan said violence is likely to escalate in Afghanistan as fresh troops expand into insurgent-held areas where the military has little or no presence. "When we do put additional security forces, I would expect to see a temporary time where the level of violence might go up," he said.

The insurgency in Afghanistan is "very resilient" in terms of its numbers and the growing complexity of attacks, in particular against nonmilitary targets such as government facilities, police and supply convoys, he said. It is fueled by funding, weapons, training and suicide bombers supplied from across the eastern border in the tribal areas of Pakistan, he said. The new influx of U.S. forces will be employed in part along Afghanistan's 1,550-mile-long border with Pakistan, concentrated on the most strategic of the hundreds of traditional border crossings used by the populations on either side. "We've got to put them in the right places," he said.

McKiernan said the U.S. military lacks sufficient intelligence and surveillance gear to make those border forces as effective as possible. Moreover, he said, it is essential to further expand collaboration along the border among U.S., Afghan and Pakistani forces, which currently have only one of several planned joint border-coordination centers.

The bulk of the initial influx of U.S. troops will go to Taliban strongholds in the ethnic Pashtun heartland of southern Afghanistan, where foreign and Afghan troops are, "at best, stalemated," McKiernan said. "Those forces are aimed at being operational by the highest part of the insurgent fighting season this summer and to be in place and operational before the projected elections in August."

The additional ground forces, including a brigade of about 8,000 Marines and an Army Stryker brigade combat team, will work with Afghan forces to drive insurgents out of towns and rural areas and increase security for the local people, he said. In addition, they will arrive prepared to train Afghan police, he said.

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is placing greater emphasis on the development of local security forces, including funding for an Afghan-led, community-based pilot program aimed at generating "bottom-up" security, he said.

The increase in ground troops could allow for the use of fewer airstrikes, McKiernan said. The relatively heavy use of bombings and other air power in Afghanistan has caused an increasing number of civilian casualties.

Despite a somber near-term outlook, McKiernan stressed that he believes the insurgency in Afghanistan will eventually be defeated. "The vast majority of the people that live in Afghanistan reject the Taliban or other militant insurgent groups. . . . The insurgency will not win in Afghanistan."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company