More US Troops May Be Needed in Afghanistan, says Pentagon Advisor

A member of the strategic assessment team working with the new U.S. military commander in Afghanistan says the U.S. government and its allies need to be more realistic about what is needed to win the Afghan war, and he says that may include more troops

Senior Washington analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the United States and its allies need to take the Afghanistan war more seriously. He says they need to be honest about the security and development problems they have allowed to fester in recent years, and about the resources that will be needed to reverse the situation.

“This war has been fought without resources, but above all without realism,” he said.

Cordesman is recently back from Afghanistan, where he joined other experts on a team advising the new U.S. commander, General Stanley McChrystal, on how to move forward. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Cordesman declined to speak directly about the strategic assessment team’s deliberations, but he suggested he believes more U.S. troops are needed.

“If you don’t provide those resources and additional brigade combat teams, if you do not, I think, effectively move the Afghan security forces toward doubling them. I think unless we’re prepared to commit those resources. If we somehow believe that a civilian surge of 700 people and tailoring our force posture to the views of a completely different set of strategic priorities, this is going to win, the answer is no, it’s going to lose,” he said.

President Barack Obama has already approved a near doubling of U.S. forces to 68,000 by the end of this year. Pressed on the number of troops needed beyond that, Cordesman said it is a difficult calculation that can not be made based on any other counterinsurgency campaign.

“This is an experiment. This isn’t some historical ratio. There is no way to easily calculate this. You’re going to have to make the best guess you can. And we’ll probably learn more from what’s happening in Helmand right now,” he said.

The president’s national security adviser, James Jones, has urged commanders not to ask for more troops. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed concern that more troops in Afghanistan could alienate people and be counterproductive.

But Cordesman said policymakers in Washington should not limit General McChrystal’s options in advance. Rather he says they should wait for the 60-day report the new commander will provide next month, based partly on the assessment in which Cordesman participated. He said the military experts are working hard on the question of how many U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan. And he says it is particularly important to significantly increase the number of competent Afghan troops.

The analyst was sharply critical of the latest Pentagon report on the situation in Afghanistan, saying it does not provide an adequate assessment of the country’s insurgency. He said U.S. intelligence services need to focus on that. In addition, he says the U.S. government needs to deal with what he called the corruption and power brokering in Afghanistan, and must bring integrity to the aid system and work with allies to get more military and civilian help from them.

Cordesman says some allies are not honest about their contributions or are not willing to recognize the seriousness of the situation and the need for more effort to fix it. He described the international aid effort in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, as being conducted as if it were in its first year, and having little impact.

“What should be an integrated civil-military effort and a focus on winning the war in the field, is a dysfunctional, wasteful mess focused on Kabul and crippled by bureaucratic divisions,” he said.

Cordesman says the current U.S. and British military operation in Helmand Province was launched without adequate preparation for civilian aid after the military delivers stability. But he said it might still be successful, and could become a model for what is called the clear-hold-and-build approach to defeating insurgents. In any case, he says, it will provide valuable lessons as Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces prepare to move into other parts of Afghanistan.

Cordesman also urged the allies to adopt more modest goals for Afghanistan, such as establishing stability and keeping al-Qaida terrorists out – similar to the goals President Obama announced in March. But he also said while some progress can be made toward those goals in the short term, with the right resources, the job will likely stretch beyond the president’s four-year term.

“Can we make a significant level of progress in Afghanistan in the next 12-to-18 months? Yes, we can. It is going to require an effective, concerted effort. If we meet those needs, and we provide the resources, that timeframe of 12 to 18 months to make real progress is very realistic,” he said.

Senior administration officials have said they want to see at least the beginning of a turnaround in Afghanistan within that timeframe.