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On the Offensive
Can commanders in Afghanistan tell the president the truth about troop shortages?

Friday, July 3, 2009

AS U.S. MARINES launched a major offensive in Afghanistan's Taliban-infested Helmand province yesterday, one problem was already apparent: There are not enough troops to properly carry out the Pentagon's new counterinsurgency strategy. The force is "a little light," Marine Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, its commander, told national security adviser James L. Jones in a meeting reported by The Post's Bob Woodward. "We don't have enough force to go everywhere."

Those comments will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the attempts by U.S. commanders to turn around the Afghan war. The idea is to replicate the strategy that finally reversed American fortunes in Iraq: protecting the population rather than seeking out insurgents, while building the economy and political institutions. Though the Bush and Obama administrations approved new troop deployments that will double the U.S. force, the ratio of American and allied Afghan soldiers to the population is still well below that mandated by the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine.

Gen. Nicholson said his greatest need is for more Afghan troops -- only 500 are joining the new Marine operation, when thousands are needed. But the Afghan army is still relatively small, and, despite a major effort to accelerate training, it is years away from reaching a size that would allow it to operate across the country. That's one reason the recently departed top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, requested that a further deployment of 10,000 U.S. troops be scheduled for next year -- and that the present effort to double the size of the Afghan army and police by 2011 be followed by another doubling by 2016. Mr. Woodward quoted one senior commander as saying privately that 100,000 U.S. troops might be needed, compared with the 68,000 currently authorized.

Mr. Obama elected to defer decisions on Gen. McKiernan's requests at the time he approved this year's deployment of 21,000 troops. So it was surprising, and troubling, to read Mr. Woodward's account of meetings in Afghanistan last month at which Mr. Jones lectured U.S. commanders about the offense they might cause the president by asking for more forces. Mr. Jones was quoted as saying that such a request would cause Mr. Obama to have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment" -- military jargon for the expression "what the [expletive]." He further declared, in reference to Iraq, "we are not going to build that empire again."

What "empire," we wonder, was Mr. Jones talking about? That of the successful "surge" -- or that of the years before, when the Pentagon chronically failed to deploy enough troops to secure Iraq? It's true, as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has pointed out, that a larger American force could prompt a backlash by Afghans. But that is not the problem at the moment: According to polls, most Afghans still favor the presence of American troops.

The new Afghanistan commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, is conducting his own assessment of the war, including troop needs. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Post's Ann Scott Tyson on Wednesday that Gen. McChrystal has been told "you can come back and ask for what you need." We hope that is the case. One of the Bush administration's greatest failings was to pressure military commanders into low-balling requests for forces, even as the president insisted that he would give the generals whatever they needed. Mr. Obama needs to hear the honest assessment of his own generals -- and to provide them with the resources that will give the new counterinsurgency strategy a chance to succeed.

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