Doubling down on Afghanistan

By Carl Levin and Jack Reed
Friday, March 4, 2011

A now-discredited report in Rolling Stone alleged that U.S. military officials in Afghanistan used inappropriate information operations techniques to try to persuade us, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and others, to support additional resources to train more Afghan troops.

The truth is, we have long argued that the best way to bring our troops home sooner while succeeding in Afghanistan is to build a stronger Afghan military and government. We've been making that case because the facts support it - which is why the president and the majority of the American people do, too.

We saw during a trip to Afghanistan in January that the United States, our Afghan allies and our NATO partners have made significant progress in reversing the momentum of the insurgents, seizing the initiative and helping Afghans secure their future.

Areas once closed to travel and commerce are open. Afghans' confidence is growing, and the country's security forces increasingly are taking the lead in operations.

While we've begun to turn around the once-daunting dynamic in Afghanistan, there is no guarantee that our progress will continue or that our gains will be permanent. The phrase "fragile and reversible" could have been invented for Afghanistan.

Our troops will continue to face danger and hardship, especially as the Taliban renews its offensive operations with the end of winter weather. In turn, policymakers in Washington will continue to face difficult choices.

The decision to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July means that Afghans, the United States and our NATO partners must urgently prepare for a transition to Afghan control.

The United States and our NATO partners must be prepared to provide substantial financial support to Afghan military forces in the years ahead as they take up the fight.

We worry that the international coalition may fall short of supporting an Afghan security structure capable of defending the Afghan people. We are also concerned that, as U.S. forces transition from a lead role to one of support, the civilian elements of U.S. policy, including diplomacy and economic development, may not be ready to step in as needed, particularly if they do not receive the resources to do this demanding work.

Failure to meet these needs could endanger the gains for which so many have fought and sacrificed. And the cost of maintaining a large U.S. presence in the future would be far greater than the expense, in the short term, of building a larger Afghan force.

Afghanistan added about 70,000 troops in 2010. Thanks to strong recruiting by the Afghans and hard work by our training command, the Afghans are on track to meet goals of 171,000 soldiers and 134,000 police officers by October.

Increasingly, Afghan forces are leading operations. They are largely responsible for holding areas already cleared of insurgents by joint NATO-Afghan operations. To continue these missions and take on an increasing and sustained security role as we reduce our involvement, they will need more soldiers and police.

The Obama administration is considering a proposal to increase Afghan security forces by about 30,000 soldiers, and a similar number of police, which would bring total Afghan security force levels to about 378,000 by the end of 2012.

Expanding the Afghan army and police force will make the country more secure in the short term and will put it in better condition when the vast majority of our troops come home. A comparison to Iraq is valuable here. Iraq has security forces of about 665,000 protecting a population of 27 million people spread out over 168,000 square miles. A force of 378,000 Afghan security personnel would be needed to provide roughly equivalent protection to 30 million Afghans spread over 250,000 square miles of much more difficult, undeveloped terrain.

Such an increase will require additional effort and money. But the cost of not meeting these needs would be far higher, and failure to do so would disrespect the sacrifices already made.

Thirty years ago the United States worked to help Afghans reclaim their country from Soviet invaders. With the departure of Soviet forces, we declared victory and turned away from helping Afghans build a stable country with effective security forces.

On Sept. 11, 2001, we discovered the tragic consequences that such inattention can have. That is a lesson we cannot afford to learn again.

Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, is a member of the panel.

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