As opinion polls show that American public support for the mission in Afghanistan falling below 50 percent, clarifying the need for greater engagement is more crucial than ever. General Stanley McCrystal's current plan goes further than any previous request to reflect the real needs of American troops and Afghan security forces. However, it does not go far enough. In light of growing political opposition and the approaching 2010 congressional elections, the full resources needed are being denied, in turn compromising America 's long-term national security interests for short-term political gain. Greater rhetorical and substantive commitment is required by national leaders across the political spectrum.
August 2009 saw the highest number of casualties in a single month in Afghanistan this year. The negative accounts surfacing from the recent presidential election threatens to further widen the credibility gap of the Afghan government and international mission. The anti-war movement, which fiercely opposed US involvement in Iraq and strongly supported Barack Obama's presidential campaign, is now preparing to mount an anti-Afghanistan campaign with equal, if not greater, determination.
General McCrystal's strategic shift does not present anything particularly new. It formalizes what has long been requested and what many knew long ago needed to be done. Many in Washington , however, remain in denial or are deliberately avoiding discussion due to fear of a political backlash. For many legislators, expressing the words "more troops" is tantamount to walking on eggs. But any increase in US and international troop levels must be a transitional prescription. Among the numerous challenges confronting the Afghan government, the lack of sufficient forces seriously impacts its credibility. Ironically, it is quite an achievement that then Afghan National Army (ANA) remains one of the few government institutions with wide public support since 2001. Generally, it is ethnically balanced, disciplined, and usually ahead of schedule in its development. However, there is an enormous disproportion between existing ANA forces and the land that needs to be secured. Despite the presence of additional international forces for recent elections, the number of ANA troops was still not adequate to secure a proper election.
Lack of sufficient troop support on the ground regularly requires airstrikes which often result in civilian casualties. Although such casualties have dropped significantly this year when compared to 2008, a greater number of well-trained Afghan troops holding ground can help reduce such tragic incidents.
In addition, the new army was created with weapons from over 30 years ago. The provision of new arms and sufficient trainers are still lagging. Until recently, the US was providing 4,000 trainers, while other allies struggle to provide 400 trainers. Trainers are a short-term investment that will yield long-term dividends, particularly when considering that the cost of one US soldier is equivalent to 70 Afghan soldiers. Increasing soldiers' salaries will also ensure greater retention. Accelerating the growth of the ANA is crucial to filling the capability gap. The ANA must eventually be able to assume greater responsibilities by leading more missions with NATO support.
Beyond sporadic rhetoric, building up Afghan security forces with the required resources to fight a full-fledged conflict was not a priority for US policymakers until recently. Over the years, constant requests by the ANA for more funds to expand its size and efficiency went largely ignored. Funding by international partners has also been limited. Furthermore, it often takes too long for the international mission to build consensus and then deliver. A significant increase in the NATO trust fund is required. The need is far larger than what has been pledged.
To further complicate m atters, violence has risen above expectations over the past year. Although Afghan and international forces are inflicting more casualties, the insurgents remain well-equipped, trained, resourced and increasingly sophisticated. The insurgents have a committed sponsorship and more foreign fighters from neighboring states. Sensing that momentum is on its side, the insurgency has expanded its operations to the more stable north, particularly in small enclaves of Pashto communities and disrupting formerly safe supply routes. The insurgency is expecting an eventual foreign withdrawal from Afghanistan. They are preparing for this outcome and are further encouraged by constant talk of an exit strategy. By focusing their efforts on several fronts they aim to weaken the will of the international community.
Dramatically lifting the ceiling on the number of Afghan troops is long overdue. Ultimately, if the international coalition provides greater enablers, the ANA can increase its effectiveness and secure more parts of Afghanistan . An expanded and better-equipped ANA doing more of its own fighting will send a strong message to the insurgency.
In Afghanistan, might is often equated with right. When reaching out to reconciliable segments of the insurgency, the central government must provide substantive carrots and an even more formidable stick.
Marco Vicenzino is president of the Global Strategy Project, world affairs commentator for leading international media outlets and provides mgeo-political risk analysis for multinational corporations around the world. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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