News that the Pentagon is planning to add two more brigades (roughly 7,000 troops) in Afghanistan is welcome. It has been clear for a while that NATO didn’t have enough troops in the south to control a resurgent Taliban operating from secure areas in Pakistan. As the New York Times notes: “There are about 62,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about 34,000 of them American, up from just 25,000 American troops in 2005.” The U.S. has been pressing our allies to do more, but so far our requests have not produced much–certainly not enough. The U.S. has already sent roughly 3,000 marines on a six-month assignment. More troops should be sent when they leave later this year.
It’s not only a question of more troops. Allied forces also aren’t as useful as they could be because they come with so many operational restrictions. The Dutch, Canadians, British, and Australians have been fighting hard in southern Afghanistan, but many others (e.g., the Germans) are prevented by their home governments from going in harm’s way. Even those NATO troops that are willing to fight don’t necessarily have the training or equipment needed to tackle a tough counterinsurgency. They lack, for instance, the CERP funds that U.S. troops are able to dole out in Iraq and Afghanistan to win friends. Also lacking are surveillance assets, airpower, and other “enablers” that the American armed forces have but most of our allies don’t. American and NATO officials have spent years cajoling European allies to send more of these critical systems (e.g., helicopters), but they have largely come up dry.
There is also a desperate need to increase the Afghan National Army from its current size of only 55,000. (Iraq’s army is 200,000-strong, and Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq.) Washington and Kabul asked NATO to pay for a substantial upgrade, but the members deferred the issue at their recent Bucharest summit, meaning in all likelihood that the U.S. will have to pay the lion’s share of the cost.
More broadly what is needed is a campaign plan and a command structure that can better coordinate disparate national elements to wage a cohesive counterinsurgency. That is something that General David Petraeus did as one of his first steps upon arriving in Iraq in 2007, and it sure to be a priority for him when he takes over Central Command, which shares responsibility for Afghanistan along with the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
Bret Stephens is right that “We’re Not Losing Afghanistan,” but there is no question that in the south, the situation has deteriorated in the past couple of years. The U.S. will have to make a greater effort to rescue the situation whether our allies are willing to do more or not. But it would certainly be nice if they stepped up their game, especially since the U.S. is carrying an even bigger load in Iraq.