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On the war's front lines

Why Obama needs to send more troops to Afghanistan

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Friday, October 30, 2009

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN Here's what you would see if you traveled this week to Kandahar and Helmand provinces, the two big battlegrounds of the Afghanistan war: a conflict that is balanced tenuously between success and failure. The United States has deployed enough troops to disrupt the Taliban insurgency and draw increasing fire, but not enough to secure the major population centers. That's not a viable position.

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I visited four U.S. bases in the two provinces this week, traveling with the military. I was able to hear from local commanders and talk with a few Afghans. I'll describe what I learned, positive and negative, so readers can weigh this evidence from the field. Then I'll explain why my conclusion is that President Obama should add some troops.

We began in Kandahar city, at the headquarters of what's known as Regional Command South, which oversees the battle in the two provinces. It's a city on the edge of the desert, surrounded by jagged, slate-gray mountains. Just over the border to the east are the Taliban's supply lines in Pakistan.

America's NATO allies have been running the war in Kandahar province, but they have been badly outgunned. So several months ago, the United States sent an Army brigade of about 4,000 troops with Stryker armored vehicles. That disrupted the Taliban insurgents, but they have responded with more roadside bombs along Highway 1, the main route that connects Kandahar to Afghanistan's other major cities.

The day before we arrived, a large bomb destroyed a Stryker vehicle in Arghandab, a Taliban stronghold northwest of Kandahar city, killing seven U.S. soldiers. That loss of life cast a shadow over my visit, and it highlighted the vulnerability of U.S. troops as they push deeper into Afghanistan. More coalition soldiers unfortunately represent more targets for the enemy.

Kandahar city remains insecure, especially at night. And 15 miles west of the city, the line of Taliban control begins. Coalition forces conduct punishing raids there, but there aren't enough troops to clear and hold the area.

A U.S. success story in Kandahar province is Spin Boldak, a town on the border with Pakistan. The Stryker brigade has launched an array of economic development projects there. A recent poll showed residents were worried far more about clean water than security. But the Taliban continues to infiltrate fighters and supplies through "rat lines" north and south of Spin Boldak, bypassing this small "ink spot" of progress.

In Helmand province to the west, the story is much the same. We visited Camp Leatherneck, where about 10,000 U.S. Marines are based near the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. The Marine surge, which began last year, has sharply improved security in Garmsir and Nawa districts, south of the capital.

But in the middle of Helmand lies a Taliban sanctuary called Marja. To clear the insurgents there would require about 2,000 more Marines. That's beyond the current U.S. troop ceiling, so Marja remains a "cancerous sore in the middle of our lines," according to one American officer. He explains: "We can't do Marja with what we have now."

The Marines in Helmand, like U.S. forces throughout the country, have embraced counterinsurgency methods to befriend and protect the local population. They carry cash to buy sodas and food in the local markets. They work with the provincial government and tribal leaders to provide services for the people. "I've bought more friggin' pomegranates than you can imagine," says the Marine commander, Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson.

It's too early to be sure, but this people-friendly strategy seems to have helped. The local provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, says security is better now in some areas of Helmand than it has been in a decade. "We need the Americans at this moment," he told me.

So what should Obama do? I think he should add enough troops to continue the mission he endorsed in March to "reverse the Taliban's gains" and improve security in Afghanistan's population centers. I don't know whether the right number is the roughly 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal has recommended, but it should be the minimum number necessary. The additional troops will come at a steep political price, at home and abroad.

The goal isn't to transform Afghanistan into a 21st-century showplace but to buy enough time for the country's army and government to fight their own battles. A year from now, that may seem like an impossible mission, but the evidence from Kandahar and Helmand this week suggests that it would be a mistake not to try.

davidignatius@washpost.com



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