WASHINGTON — Barack Obama and John McCain say more U.S. troops should be sent to Afghanistan, and President Bush agrees. Deploying additional forces could backfire, however, if the United States and its allies don't devise a coherent strategy to defeat the Taliban insurgency, strengthen the Afghan government, bolster the country's economy and deprive Islamic militants of their safe haven in neighboring Pakistan.
The calls for reinforcing the U.S.-led military coalition come amid the worst violence since the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, with the seven-year-old "forgotten war" in May and June claiming more U.S. dead than Iraq for the first time.
Obama Friday called for beefing up the 71,000-strong U.S. and NATO contingents by at least two U.S. brigades, or roughly 7,500 troops, and pressing NATO allies to send more soldiers, as well.
McCain, who'd opposed more forces, responded by saying that he'd send the three brigades U.S. commanders are requesting. Bush agreed that more forces should go, but it's unclear if he'll send them before his term ends in January.
In an interview with McClatchy Saturday night, Obama said U.S. goals in Afghanistan should be "relatively modest. We shouldn't want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops."
More foreign troops, however, would do little than turn more war-weary Afghans against U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai if they aren't part of a broader and more effective counter-insurgency strategy, some experts and U.S. officials warned.
"There is not one strategy with one person in charge," complained a U.S. defense official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "If we had asked the Taliban to draw an organizational chart for allied forces in Afghanistan, they would have drawn this one."
A more coherent approach, they said, would streamline the U.S. and NATO chains of command, end restrictions that some allies place on their soldiers and use force far more judiciously to reduce civilian casualties.
There also must be better coordination between military and international reconstruction efforts so that more Afghans see benefits in their daily lives, experts and U.S. officials agreed.
In addition, Karzai's government requires more help — and more pressure — to deliver basic services to its impoverished people, build competent police and reform the dysfunctional legal system. It must also do much more to root out corruption, especially among senior officials profiting from the world's largest opium crop, the experts said.
While progress has been made in training and rebuilding the Afghan army, the 63,000-strong force lacks logistics, transportation, airpower and other capabilities.
An even greater challenge is to develop an effective policy to end the refuge that the Taliban, al Qaida and other groups enjoy along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, the experts and U.S. officials said.
So why are more troops required?
Some U.S. commanders have complained privately for years that after President Bush diverted resources and troops to Iraq they lacked the manpower to conduct an effective counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, especially in the Taliban's southern heartland.
"An increase in troops . . . is absolutely necessary, albeit insufficient to alone stabilize Afghanistan," said a U.S. defense official who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to comment publicly. "We can lose Afghanistan for too little of securing the people."
While the numbers of U.S. and international troops have risen to some 35,000 and 29,700 respectively, that's still less than half the size of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, a country about half as big as Afghanistan. Moreover, less than half the U.S. personnel are combat troops.
As a result, U.S. and NATO troop have had to cede areas to the insurgents or turn over newly reclaimed territory to poorly trained, ill-equipped and illiterate police who often flee when attacked, are in cahoots with the militants or abuse the local population.
"You win every battle but lose the war because you can't hold any ground," said John McCreary, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
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The U.S.-led coalition is also desperately short of soldiers who can mentor Afghan National Police units. An estimated 3,500 more advisors — or about one brigade's worth — are needed to live and work with newly trained police units.
Another looming requirement is for more experienced U.S. combat troops to deal with what U.S. commanders believe may be an influx of foreign Islamic militants who might have otherwise gone to Iraq.
Finally, an immediate requirement for additional foreign forces is boosting security so that U.N. and Afghan officials can prepare for presidential elections due next year and 2010 parliamentary polls.
It took U.S.-led NATO forces, the Afghan government and the United Nations a year to complete the task of registering voters, printing ballots, setting up polling stations and bolstering security for presidential and legislative elections in 2004, when the insurgency was nowhere near the level it is now, they pointed out.
David Lamm, a retired Army colonel who served as chief of staff to the top U.S. general in Afghanistan in 2004-05, said that failing to hold the presidential polls on schedule would speed up an erosion of popular support for the Karzai government and its international supporters and bolster Taliban propaganda that paints Karzai as an American puppet.
"If you can't hold an election, it means you can't govern," said Lamm, now with the National Defense University in Washington. "It would be a huge win for everybody who opposes the international effort in Afghanistan. The whole political dynamic changes. Everybody goes their own way. Kabul becomes an armed camp. All those warlords elected in the last parliament will have their militias protecting them."
The warlords "see the Taliban getting stronger," agreed Barnett Rubin of New York University. "What they have always said is they see the international presence and Afghan security forces as a wall that is protecting them in Kabul. They don't have much confidence in that wall anymore."
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