Military will strain to get more troops to Afghanistan quickly

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 2, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Getting 30,000-35,000 troops into some of the world's most backward terrain in six months will be the most ambitious troop movement yet in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will compel an already strained military to move large forces faster than ever before, military officials said Wednesday.

Until Tuesday, officials thought they'd have until the end of next year to deploy all the additional troops, but even before the president spoke at West Point, some Pentagon officials privately said they were dubious that the military could deploy that many troops so quickly.

Getting the troops to Afghanistan will be easier than getting all their equipment there and setting up bases in areas where infrastructure is lacking. To get them the housing, equipment and services, the military will likely turn again to private contractors, even though Secretary of Defense Robert Gates conceded on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Defense Department doesn't have enough people to oversee those contracts.

At the Pentagon Wednesday, Army officials began asking what infrastructure exists in various parts of Kandahar province, where many of the new troops will be sent.

"The issue — really, the issues are logistics, building the infrastructure, getting the equipment in there. I mean, there are many, many variables to the equation. And we'll be doing our absolute best to accelerate that as quickly as possible," said Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, the director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination cell of the military's Joint Staff, in a briefing with bloggers after the president's speech.

Afghanistan still hasn't fully absorbed the 21,000 troops President Obama ordered earlier this year, and there are still shortages of helicopters, mental health counselors, engineers and other essentials.

The additional troops that President Barack Obama will send to Afghanistan will, in many cases, be sent to large swaths of the country's south that have never seen a coalition soldier before, and often where there is no infrastructure to support or transport them.

Some on Capitol Hill are worried that the troop surge could send the cost of the war soaring, noting that during the Iraq war, the military awarded private companies expensive contracts to set up bases quickly.

In Iraq, contracting costs soared because "it was all about, 'We need it today. We need it tomorrow. We don't care what it costs,' " Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, told Gates during a hearing Wednesday.

Virginia-based DynCorp International is in charge of logistics for U.S. troops in southern Afghanistan. In July, the company was awarded a one-year, $643.5 million contract that was slated to expand to as much as $5.87 billion over five years before Obama's announcement.

It's unclear whether the military will expand that contract or seek bids on a new one. DynCorp spokesman Douglas Ebner said that his company "certainly recognizes the challenges coming. But we have experience in the country."

In his speech, the president estimated that the war could cost $30 billon, but the Washington-based Henry L. Stimson Center, a non-partisan policy institute, estimates that deploying tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan in six months is likely to boost the cost and force Congress to pass a supplemental spending bill.

The Marines will send a Regimental Combat Team from Camp Lejeune, N.C. to Helmand province. Most of the remaining forces will travel to Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban. Army officials said that next week they'd begin notifying the three Army brigades that will be sent.

For the beginning of their deployments, the forces likely will live in tents and have no bathrooms. Their food and mail will likely be flown in because there are no roads that can carry heavy truck convoys. In places where there are roads, convoys will have to worry about the growing IED threat and attacks from insurgents.

The 2007 surge of roughly 28,000 troops into Iraq also took about six months, but many of the forces were headed to city centers where sewage, water and electricity systems were already in place. In Afghanistan, the forces will have to set that up themselves.

The U.S. Central Command is already shifting resources and equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan. U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a CENTCOM spokesman, said the military would need more capacity at airfields for the additional troops. In addition, CENTCOM is examining ways to secure a route to carry supplies to Army outposts throughout southern Afghanistan.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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