U.S. Increasingly Takes Lead in the War in Afghanistan
Thursday, March 26, 2009
After years of often testy cooperation with NATO and resentment over unequal burden-sharing, the United States is taking unabashed ownership of the Afghan war.
President Obama's decision to deploy an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan this year will bring the number of foreign troops there to nearly 90,000, more than two-thirds of them Americans. Although many will technically report to NATO commanders, the U.S. force will increasingly be in charge.
Even as the U.S. military expands its control over the battlefield, the number of American civilian officials will also grow by at least 50 percent -- to more than 900 -- under the new Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy Obama will announce as early as tomorrow, according to administration officials. American diplomats and development experts plan to spread into relatively peaceful western and northern regions of Afghanistan that until now were left to other NATO governments. New U.S. resources and leadership also will be brought to bear over critical issues such as counter-narcotics efforts and strengthening local government institutions.
U.S. policy in Pakistan, a major component of the new strategy, is largely unilateral. The European Union has an aid and trade relationship with the country, but few European governments outside of Britain have strong involvement there.
In Afghanistan, the administration "will continue to characterize the effort as multinational. There will continue to be thousands of troops and people" from NATO and elsewhere, said a former senior Defense Department official with a lot of experience there. "But the center of gravity is going to shift toward the Americans."
Obama's national security team has taken pains to consult with allies as it has put the new strategy together. The Washington announcement, and the presentation Obama will make at an April 3-4 NATO summit in Europe, will emphasize shared threats and common purpose, officials said.
But the increasing U.S. dominance is both by default and by design. The United States has far more troops, equipment and money -- and more willingness to use them -- than the rest of NATO. Even before Obama took office, his holdover defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, had largely given up pressing the allies for more combat forces, with fewer restrictions on their activities.
Although European governments have been asked to send up to four additional battalions of 800 to 1,000 troops each to boost security for Afghan elections in August, they will be temporary additions. Britain, whose 8,000 combat troops make it the second-largest NATO contributor, is considering whether it can send more after its withdrawal from Iraq this year. Germany, the third largest, has authorized 4,500, although they are restricted from certain combat areas and duties; France fields nearly 3,000 unrestricted troops.
The Netherlands plans to end its 1,700-troop combat mission in Afghanistan next year; Canada will bring its 2,800 troops home in 2011. With the arrival of new forces this year, U.S. troops will number more than 55,000.
"It's great to have our allies here," a U.S. commander in Afghanistan said. "But we recognize that when crunchtime comes -- and that's what we're in right now -- we have to be the ones to step up and get it done."
"Crunchtime" arrived for Obama in a series of military, diplomatic and intelligence assessments warning that no time remains for the niceties of negotiating over who will do what in Afghanistan. Taliban attacks and both U.S. and NATO casualties rose last year to their highest levels of the war, now in its eighth year, and the numbers are expected to further increase this year.
"This is the new reality," the former Defense Department official said. "We tried the essentially decentralized approach, where every country kind of does its own area and does what it thinks is right. That has essentially fallen down. . . . We want our allies to still be there. We don't want NATO to fail. But in order for NATO to succeed, the U.S. has got to take the lead."
Rather than expecting more combat forces, the U.S. administration has asked the allies to tell it what more they can contribute in terms of financing, training for Afghan forces, and civilian experts in every sector, from agriculture to governance -- "essentially whatever you can give us to free up an American to do something else," the former official said.
The results of those entreaties remain to be seen. A NATO trust fund established last year to pay for equipment and transportation for Afghan security forces set a goal of about $1.5 billion; contributions to date total less than $25 million, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Bantz J. Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. Plans to double the size of the Afghan army to 134,000 by 2011 will require an additional 29 NATO training teams. "The U.S. provides them when NATO doesn't," Craddock said. American trainers outnumber their NATO counterparts three to one.
Because some NATO members restrict their troops to certain areas of the country, trainers often cannot move with redeployed Afghan forces, leaving U.S. forces to "pick up the responsibility" to transport the Afghans and their equipment from one region to another, Craddock said.
The Americanization of the war is visible in the turbulent south, where the regional NATO command, led by a Dutch general, with Dutch, British, Danish and U.S. troops, faces the primary Taliban threat. Most of the additional U.S. troops will deploy there, and dozens of C-130 transport aircraft land at the Kandahar air field every day with pallets of supplies. In a dusty parking lot not far from the main runway, more than 200 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, await the supplementary U.S. troops. When they arrive, there will be more American personnel at the Kandahar base than at the current largest U.S. facility -- at Bagram, north of Kabul, the capital.
A British general will take over the southern command this fall, but U.S. and NATO military officials said they expect the No. 2 commander, U.S. Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, to be the real decision-maker.
"This will become an American headquarters," one non-U.S. military officer in southern Afghanistan said of Kandahar. "They're going to have almost three times as many troops as any other NATO member here. And that's going to mean they'll be in charge."