Congress has increased its focus on the war in Afghanistan as the Obama Administration fine tunes its new counterinsurgency strategy. Yesterday, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he supported “a properly resourced, classically pursued counterinsurgency effort.” Mullen acknowledged that “a properly-resourced counterinsurgency probably needs more forces – and without question more time and more commitment to the protection of the Afghan people and to the development of good governance.”
But it is unclear whether Congress has the patience and fortitude to support the deployment of more U.S. troops. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the committee, stressed that a surge in Afghan army and police forces should be a higher priority than any surge of American forces and called for an acceleration in the growth of Afghan security forces: “I believe these steps should be urgently implemented before we consider a further increase in U.S. ground combat troops beyond what is already planned to be deployed by the end of the year.” Senator Levin advocated some good ideas, including almost doubling the size of the Afghan army and police to 250,000 and 160,000 personnel respectively.
But this expansion is a necessary complement, not an adequate substitute, for greater U.S. military efforts. Moreover, more U.S. troops would be needed to train, advise, and partner with Afghan army forces or the rapidly expanding Afghan forces would not be effective. And it will take considerable time to recruit, equip, train, and deploy such Afghan forces. But decisive American steps are needed urgently to salvage the precarious security situation in Afghanistan.
As Senator John McCain, the ranking Republican on the committee noted at the hearing: “I strongly disagree with the wait-and-see recommendation that we should deploy no additional U.S. combat forces to Afghanistan until this action has been taken. I believe that this position would repeat the nearly catastrophic mistakes of Iraq and significantly set back the vital war effort in Afghanistan.”
After the Obama Administration digests the classified report prepared by General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it should take decisive action to give U.S. military leaders the troops and resources needed to carry out the Administration’s promising counterinsurgency strategy. Calls for the formation of an Afghanistan Study Group to further mull over the Administration’s strategy would be counterproductive to the extent that it would postpone urgent decisions on troop levels and jeopardize the prospects for success.
The Iraq Study Group was convened after it became clear that the Bush Administration’s initial policy in Iraq had failed and needed to be reformulated. But the Obama Administration’s strategy, which entails a shift to a counterinsurgency effort that puts a premium on protection of Afghan civilians, has not been fully resourced or implemented yet. And the Administration cannot afford to sit around and await the report of an outside study group.
What is needed in Afghanistan is not more study, but systematic action to implement past studies. President Obama must exercise firm presidential leadership to explain forcefully to Congress and the American people what is at risk in Afghanistan and the urgent need to give his military commanders the support that they need to successfully carry out his administration’s new Afghanistan policy.