Some Troops Embrace Afghan War

Staff Sergeants Steven and Sophia Horne, who are members of the same brigade, are preparing to deploy to Afghanistan for a year. They will have to leave their five children in the care of relatives. Video by Ann Scott Tyson/The Washington Post
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- As the fight in Afghanistan transforms from a "forgotten war" to the U.S. military's top priority -- with tens of thousands of soldiers and Marines headed there this year -- overstretched ground troops are voicing unexpected enthusiasm about the new mission.

Afghanistan represents for some service members a far more palatable war than Iraq, one that enjoys more support among Americans because of its strong ties to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. "It's the just war," said an Army officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, and who has deployed several times to Afghanistan and Iraq. "People are more positive about it."

Long overshadowed as an "economy of force" effort, the Afghanistan war is gaining the attention it deserves, according to interviews with senior Army and Marine Corps leaders, midlevel officers and rank-and-file troops.

"For many of us serving there . . . as the sideshow for Iraq, we felt we were the other war and couldn't understand why," said Craig Mullaney, a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan and later advised the Obama campaign on that war. "I think a lot of us are encouraged by reallocating resources to Afghanistan."

For soldiers and Marines drawn to combat, Afghanistan is also viewed as the more challenging and sought-after duty as insurgents heighten fighting in the rugged terrain, according to several officers.

Marine Corps leaders and troops have long advocated shifting their mission from Iraq's Anbar province to Afghanistan. "The ones in Iraq are saying, 'Hey sir, when are we going to Afghanistan?' " said Lt. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Marine Corps deputy commandant for operations.

"I had more intense missions the year in Afghanistan than both tours I had in Iraq," said Sgt. 1st Class Peter Rohrs, 33, a flight medic who received the Silver Star for a harrowing rescue mission in eastern Afghanistan in November 2007. "It was rewarding to fly in such an intense environment, and it was a good use of our skills," he said.

"Iraq is looked at as the second-string mission now," said one Army officer who will soon go to Iraq and who was not authorized to speak on the record. "My buddies are shooting it out in Afghanistan, and I will go to meetings and work on the sewer -- that is mission envy."

Yet the military's planned withdrawal deadline for combat forces from Iraq -- August 2010 -- and the ongoing growth of the Army and the Marine Corps are also prolonging the strain on many service members.

"I expect the demand on our forces will continue to be high for the foreseeable future," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff. The biggest challenge, he said, is the shortage of support forces such as aviation, military police and logistics units. "We are building capacity in these areas, but it will take some time," he said.

Afghanistan poses a greater challenge for the military than does Iraq in some ways: harsh geography; undeveloped highways and infrastructure; and a decentralized, tribal society. Such conditions mean a demand for more engineers to build roads and bases, medical personnel to treat the wounded, intelligence experts to target insurgents, bomb-clearing teams and helicopters to move troops around the battlefield.

Army aviation units -- now facing their highest demand since 2001 -- epitomize the pressure created by the buildup. Helicopters are needed to speed the evacuation of casualties as well as to transport troops and supplies over bomb-laden roads, officers said.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company