New proposals from Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) to increase U.S. troop commitments and development assistance to Afghanistan are long overdue and yet contradicted by his policy prescriptions for U.S. forces in Iraq. Our battle-weary soldiers in Iraq cannot leave without a plan for a significant redeployment, and they cannot redeploy from there to Afghanistan or elsewhere in significant numbers without placing even further strains on our already overstretched ground forces.
Sen. McCain seems unaware or unfamiliar with these current facts on the ground. But Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, certainly isn’t. He noted in early July that although he would like to direct additional troops to Afghanistan, “those forces will not be available unless or until the situation in Iraq allows us to do so.”
Sen. McCain is to be commended for his desire to increase security in Afghanistan, but U.S. progress there would have been better served by an earlier and stronger commitment from him and other conservatives. Instead, they all but abandoned the fight against Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda and his Taliban allies in favor of invading Iraq. Because U.S. military resources and American political and public attention shifted to Iraq, the security challenges in Afghanistan multiplied. Suicide bombings in the country increased from 21 in 2005 to 139 in 2006, and 160 in 2007—the deadliest year for U.S. forces in the country since the invasion.
The recent attack on an American outpost, which claimed the lives of nine U.S. soldiers in northeastern Afghanistan, underscores the deteriorating security situation in the country, and the necessity of directing more resources to the conflict. The incident, the deadliest attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan in three years, is sure to make this month more deadly for U.S. troops in Afghanistan than Iraq for the third month in a row.
The three additional brigades that Sen. McCain proposes to deploy to Afghanistan have long been needed there to pursue this growing insurgency. As he recognizes in his proposals, U.S. and NATO forces currently deployed to Afghanistan are insufficient to meet the demands of the conflict. But that’s been a fact for some time now.
U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill called for three additional brigades to be sent to Afghanistan during his tenure from February 2007 to June 2008 as the head of the International Security Assistance Force, and his successor, General David McKiernan, expressed a need for additional military resources as recently as June 2008.
The lack of adequate military forces in a region home to Al Qaeda Central poses a direct security threat to the United States and its allies. The border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan provided the sanctuary in which the attacks of September 11 were planned and directed, and now serves as a base from which the Taliban and other insurgents receive financing and training alongside members of Al Qaeda.
The most serious weakness of Sen. McCain’s proposed strategy, however, is its feasibility, rather than its timing. He insists upon a large, open-ended U.S. military presence in Iraq, which calls into question his ability to deliver reinforcements to Afghanistan.
The Bush administration’s surge strategy in Iraq—a policy repeatedly lauded by McCain—is directly responsible for the U.S. military’s diminished ability to effectively counter the insurgency in Afghanistan. Although the combat brigades that constituted the surge have already withdrawn from Iraq, there are still 140,000 troops in the country, 8,000 more than before the surge. The deployment of these personnel, combined with the already high troop levels in Iraq, places unacceptable restrictions on the ability of U.S. commanders to fight terrorism and insurgency elsewhere.
Sen. McCain’s policy does not account for the strain placed on U.S. forces due to repeated deployments. Of the nearly 1.7 million U.S. soldiers who have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, almost 600,000 have been deployed more than once. As the large U.S. presence in Iraq continues to require repeated deployments, often with insufficient time between tours of duty, the ability of the military to provide significant numbers of combat-ready forces for Afghanistan is diminished.
Increasing security in Afghanistan must be the primary, though not sole priority of the United States. U.S. policy in Afghanistan can and must be revitalized with a commitment to building Afghan government capacity, reining in corruption, increasing reconstruction efforts, removing the terrorist safe haven in Pakistan, and reducing the production of opium.
At our sister affiliate, the Center for American Progress, we have been advocating for a renewed focus on Afghanistan since the release of the Center’s “Strategic Redeployment” plan in 2005. The Center’s “Strategic Reset” report, released in June 2007, reiterated the need to develop a comprehensive U.S. strategy for the Middle East, including a troop increase in Afghanistan. In November 2007, the Center released “The Forgotten Front,” which provided a detailed plan for immediate and sustained action to combat the growing Afghan insurgency, including a significant increase in the number of American troops.
Unfortunately, the next president will be unable to move forward with these priorities without a significant redeployment of American forces from Iraq, a policy McCain has thus far been unwilling to consider.
Lawrence J. Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.