More Fighting as Forces Enter Afghanistan
WASHINGTON - President Obama's decision to send 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to Afghanistan will intensify fighting in the short term and place pressure on commanders there to produce measurable results in about a year.
Violence will likely increase in the spring after the harsh winter weather ends and troops begin clearing insurgent strongholds, Michael Vickers, an assistant secretary of Defense, said Tuesday night. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress on Wednesday that the Taliban had a "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.
"The main thing is when you make a concerted effort to attack into fortified areas . . . you are going to take more casualties," said Fred Kagan, who helped produce an assessment of Afghanistan for Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said the plan gives him enough time to achieve results. "I believe that by next summer the uplift of new forces will make a difference on the ground significantly," McChrystal said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he expects to see "measurable progress" over the next 18 to 24 months.
The military hopes to seize the initiative from insurgents, reduce violence and build adequate security forces so they can begin a transition to Afghan security forces by mid-2011.
Many of the 30,000 reinforcements will be headed to the contentious south.
U.S. forces are likely to encounter resistance as they enter areas that have not had a strong NATO presence. For example, Marines have secured much of the Helmand River Valley but don't have enough forces to clear Marjah, a rural district that has become an insurgent stronghold.
"It's no secret that Marjah is sort of a last stand place for a lot of insurgent forces," said Maj. Bill Pelletier, a Marine Corps spokesman in Helmand province.
It could be a tough fight. The area is crisscrossed by deep irrigation channels, making it difficult for troops to maneuver through the area.
"No one expects that an operation in Marjah would be easily accomplished nor lightly undertaken," Pelletier said.
The terrain "favors the enemy," said Col. Gary Montgomery, a Marine historian who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan.
Additional troops also will be positioned around Kandahar, the southern city that was the spiritual home of the Taliban.
The extra troops will bring the total of U.S. servicemembers in Afghanistan to about 100,000. There are about 38,000 NATO and other coalition troops in Afghanistan. NATO said it would send an additional 5,000 troops as part of the buildup of forces in Afghanistan.
McChrystal has said the "main effort" of NATO forces will be training and building Afghan security forces.
The 30,000 additional servicemembers will contain a combination of trainers and combat brigades. U.S. and NATO forces also have developed plans to help support tribes and villages that want to defend themselves against insurgents.
But fighting and increased casualties may initially take the focus away from some of these other efforts.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said it was important to tell the American public that casualties will likely go up.
In 2007, U.S. casualties increased in the early months of the surge in Iraq, but quickly dropped as U.S. and Iraqi forces established security in Baghdad and elsewhere. That dramatic progress allowed U.S. commanders to make an argument for keeping troop levels high in order to lock in gains.
The White House has said NATO will begin transitioning security responsibility to Afghan forces and begin withdrawing troops by the summer of 2011.
Achieving results in Afghanistan may take longer than the surge in Iraq, said Kagan, a key architect of the plan to increase troops in Iraq. A large portion of the Iraqi population lives in cities, while Afghanistan's insurgency is based in the countryside, making progress slow.
"The good news is the administration does not seem to be planning that a rapid turnaround will take place," he said.