Afghan War Needs Troops

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
Baltimore Sun
January 7, 2007
Pg. 1

Taliban expected to push against thin U.S., NATO forces
By David Wood, Sun Reporter
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Radical Islamist Taliban forces, shattered and ejected from Afghanistan by the U.S. military five years ago, are poised for a major offensive against U.S. troops and undermanned NATO forces, prompting American commanders here to issue an urgent appeal for a new Marine Corps battalion to reinforce the American positions.
NATO's 30,000 troops in Afghanistan are supposed to have taken responsibility for security operations across the country. But Taliban attacks have risen sharply, and senior U.S. officers here describe the NATO operation as weak, hobbled by a shortage of manpower and equipment and by restrictions put on the troops by their home capitals.
The accelerating war here and the critical need for troops vastly complicate the crumbling security picture across the region - from Afghanistan, where the United States chose to strike back after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, to Iraq, where American troops have been unable in almost four years of fighting to establish basic security and quell a bloody sectarian war.
As a last-ditch effort, President Bush is expected to announce this week the dispatch of thousands of additional troops to Iraq as a stopgap measure, an order that Pentagon officials say would strain the Army and Marine Corps as they struggle to man both wars.
Already, a U.S. Army infantry battalion fighting in a critical area of eastern Afghanistan is due to be withdrawn within weeks in order to deploy to Iraq.
According to Army Brig. Gen. Anthony J. Tata and other senior U.S. commanders here, that will happen just as the Taliban is expected to unleash a major campaign to cut the vital road between Kabul and Kandahar. The official said the Taliban intend to seize Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city and the place where the group was organized in the 1990s.
"We anticipate significant events there next spring," said Tata.
At stake, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, is the key U.S. strategic imperative of preventing al-Qaida and Taliban forces from establishing terrorist sanctuaries, as Afghanistan was in the late 1990s, when al-Qaida launched operations to bomb U.S. embassies and warships and eventually hatched the Sept. 11 plot.
"This could be a pivotal year" for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, said in an interview after a recent series of briefings here. "I don't think they see that they are near defeat or anything. I just think they sense they are vulnerable to inroads being made" against what had been a relatively stable country.
Despite the presence of about 30,000 NATO troops - roughly 10 percent short of what its member nations had pledged to provide - Taliban attacks on U.S., allied and Afghan forces more than tripled in the past year, from 1,632 in 2005 to 5,388 in 2006, according to U.S. military intelligence officials. Suicide bomb attacks leapt from 18 in 2005 to 116 in 2006. Significantly, direct-fire attacks also more than tripled, from three per day in 2005 to more than 10 per day in 2006, indicating an increasingly emboldened Taliban willing to attack head-on.
With NATO unable or unwilling to stem the rising violence, the Taliban are pressing their advantage. Rather than withdrawing to regroup over the winter, intelligence officials and combat commanders here said, the Taliban forces - clad in new cold-weather boots and fleece jackets - are fighting through the bitter cold months.
"It is bleak," said Col. Chris Haas, commander of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan.
"The gains we have made over the past few years are mostly gone," said a bearded Special Operations officer, fresh in from advising Afghan army units in battle with 600 to 700 well-equipped Taliban fighters.
Conway said U.S. commanders understand that the Afghan war is an "economy of force" operation, a military term for a mission that is given minimal resources because it is a secondary priority, in this case behind Iraq.
Nevertheless, Conway said, he favored dispatching a Marine battalion here, a decision that must be approved by the new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, and by the president.
"It has to be made pretty soon," Conway said. "We can't jerk the troops around and say, 'Hey, oh, by the way, you're going to Afghanistan in February.'"
At the moment, Taliban fighters "are incapable of holding ground," said a U.S. military intelligence officer, and when they go toe-to-toe with U.S. combat forces, "they get their clocks cleaned." But after battle, "they are able to regenerate" with fresh troops and equipment, and they are wielding "more sophisticated and newer weaponry," said the officer, who declined to elaborate.
The Taliban are also building up forces in southern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces teams have found logistics bases and a field hospital for as many as 900 Taliban fighters in the area of Lashkar Gah, in Helmund province. Intelligence officers said the Taliban forces often travel with foreign advisers from Chechnya and elsewhere.
Taliban operations across Afghanistan, aimed at harassing U.S. and NATO troops and intimidating local government officials and schoolteachers, are also seriously hampering economic development.
"There are thousands of projects waiting to be done," said a senior U.S. officer. "The problem is security."
U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, who takes over as the top allied officer in Afghanistan next month, will command the NATO troops and roughly 17,000 U.S. troops in the field with about 36,000 Afghan soldiers. But they are stretched too thin across this nation of jagged peaks and wind-scoured desert to occupy the roads and towns cleared of Taliban, American officers said.
"You leave and they return," said the intelligence officer. "The thing is to be able to stop that from happening, and that is why General McNeill has asked for more forces here, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces" in the south.
In response to that request, Poland has agreed to send 1,000 troops in April into the U.S. sector in southeastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan. That is where a fresh Marine Corps battalion would take up operations, an area that Tata, the deputy commander of the 10th Mountain Division and other U.S. forces here, said is a "critical area" that includes the main road between Kabul and Kandahar.
Troops from 37 countries make up the NATO presence here, in an operation that is hotly controversial in many countries. Canada, for example, has about 2,200 troops here, mostly in Kandahar province, and has lost 44 in battle. A recent poll by the Toronto Globe and Mail and the CTV television network found 61 percent saying that troops should not be in Afghanistan and should be brought home. The war is similarly unpopular in other NATO countries.
As a result, the NATO command has been unable to muster the number of troops that its members have pledged. One key capability that NATO has not been able to provide is a dedicated operational reserve, a combat unit that is on standby to swing into action when needed.
NATO troops here also work under restrictions that govern the kinds of operations they may participate in or the geographical areas in which they are allowed to operate.
These restrictions are secret, a senior NATO official said in a telephone interview from NATO's military headquarters in Brussels. He acknowledged that "the caveats that have caused the most irritation are those which have prevented movement" of some NATO forces to the south, where the fighting is more "intense."
U.S. battlefield commanders here are contemptuous of many of NATO's military operations.
"We are staying in the areas we seize, through the winter," said Tata. "NATO in the south, it goes in and then leaves, and the Taliban comes in."
A senior U.S. Special Forces officer said the Canadians, even though they have tanks and light armored vehicles, refuse to dismount on foot patrols, which are considered more risky but more productive in establishing relationships with the local population.
British troops "established a series of strong points and then wouldn't go out on patrol," said another American officer. "It got almost comical when the Taliban would do drive-by shootings."
One Special Forces officer, an adviser with the Afghan army, told of asking the Canadians for help in regaining the initiative in battle. "They refused to cross the river" to help, the officer said in a cold fury. "It is disturbing."
Conway said he was "surprised" at the reported poor performance of some NATO troops. "I thought the troops in NATO were more aggressive," he said.
Asked to respond to the allegations against the Canadians and British forces, the NATO official said there is "no policy" that would prevent any NATO troops from coming to help in battle or treat wounded. While acknowledging that NATO contributions have fallen short of the need, he said the gap in capabilities has been eased because some member countries have relaxed the restrictions on their forces.
John Morris, a spokesman for Canada's Expeditionary Forces Command in Ottawa, said it is "absolutely not true" that Canadians do not patrol on foot. He could not comment on any specific cases but insisted that Canadian forces operating in Afghanistan "are not subject to any geographic or movement restrictions."
A British diplomat, asked about allegations that British outposts were attacked in Taliban "drive-by shootings," said that information was outdated.
He said British forces in northern Helmand province are maintaining a security presence in coordination with the provincial government and local Afghan elders.
Afghan War Needs Troops? That is the last thing the Afgahn people need, they have suffered war enough. What they need are good leaders and a well trained police force! We need our troops at home, that is where the threat of terrorism is growing every day.