Top U.S. commander warns that Afghan war could get worse

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 1, 2008 

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan warned Wednesday that the situation there could worsen there before it improves and urgently called for more troops, civilian advisors and equipment. "We're in a very tough fight," said Gen. David McKiernan. "The idea that it might get worse before it gets better is certainly a possibility."

McKiernan spoke amid growing worries among Pentagon officials about how the U.S. military can sustain troop levels in Iraq and also address the worsening violence in Afghanistan. While violence has dropped significantly in Iraq this year, it's risen by roughly 30 percent in Afghanistan, and U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan now surpass the monthly toll in Iraq.

Afghanistan has had a far lower priority in troops and funds than Iraq has, and it's frequently referred to as an "economy of force" operation, one that requires a minimal number of troops. But top Pentagon officials say it can't be run that way any longer, and the military has recently begun to re-examine its Afghan strategy.

During Friday's presidential debate, Barack Obama and John McCain both called for more troops in Afghanistan to counter the growing violence. McCain said that the answer to the insurgency was to adopt the strategy in Iraq and send in more troops.

McKiernan, who's in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, spent much of Wednesday trying to convince Washington to focus on Afghanistan. He spoke to Pentagon reporters in the morning, held a second news conference at midday and met President Bush later in the afternoon.

The U.S. military contends that it must reduce its troop presence in Iraq to increase it in Afghanistan. McKiernan has asked for three additional brigade combat teams, or roughly 20,000 more troops, and he said he needs more helicopters because that's how his troops most often travel, given Afghanistan's size and rough terrain.

However, amid signs that the violence in Iraq may be increasing again, Gen. David Petraeus, the former Iraq commander, has recommended only a modest troop cut in Iraq by next spring, to which President Bush has agreed. That leaves little capacity for a surge of troops to Afghanistan. There are 152,000 U.S. troops in Iraq; 33,000 in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Petraeus, who's about to take over as the commander of the U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan and Iraq, is guiding the reassessment of the U.S. military approach in Afghanistan.

Both McKiernan and Petraeus have stressed that the counterinsurgency strategy adopted in Iraq cannot be readily applied to Afghanistan, where the infrastructure is lacking, the economy is weaker, the terrain is rougher and the tribal system is far more complex. It appears that the United States will continue to have far fewer troops to "clear and hold" communities that have been seized by insurgents and foreign fighters.

McKiernan said U.S. military strategy now is to train Afghan troops to take the lead in the fighting and to have the Afghan government choose local leaders — because the U.S. military doesn't want to pick sides among Afghanistan's 400-plus tribes.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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