Carl Levin: Situation in Afghanistan at crucial stagePublished 5:50pm Friday, September 18, 2009
The battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan is at a crucial stage. The Obama administration’s new strategy, focusing on securing the Afghan population’s safety, is an important start at reversing worrisome recent trends. But after recently traveling to the region, I believe there is an urgent need for additional resources to make that strategy successful.
One question our nation now faces is whether those new resources should include more U.S. combat troops, beyond the already-planned increase now underway, which will raise our troop commitment to about 68,000 by the end of this year. Before we decide to add troops beyond that commitment, we and our Afghan allies should focus on accelerated efforts to train, equip and field a larger Afghan force, and to win the allegiance of low- and mid-level Taliban fighters in the same way that Sunni insurgents in Iraq were transformed from enemies to allies.
While the situation in Afghanistan has worsened, we still have important advantages there. Public opinion polls show that the Afghan people hate the Taliban. And the Afghan military is a highly motivated force of proven fighters. Security problems there remains serious, but we must ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to a Taliban-friendly government that would once again provide a safe haven for al Qaeda.
Our commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told me that he fears the growing perception that we are failing in Afghanistan and the effect that could have on the Afghan public, on the Taliban and al Qaeda, and on the Afghan government.
To re-establish momentum for our efforts, we should focus on enabling the Afghan army and police to secure the Afghan people.
The Afghan army now has about 90,000 troops and is scheduled to increase to 134,000 by October 2010. The Afghan police are scheduled to increase to 97,000 in the same period. Many of us in Congress have long advocated committing to a larger force of 240,000 Afghan soldiers and 160,000 police by 2013. After visiting Afghanistan, I believe that increase can and must be achieved even earlier, by 2012.
Our military in Afghanistan has pointed repeatedly to a need for more Afghan forces. In one sector of Helmand Province I visited, our Marines outnumbered Afghan soldiers by five to one. A Marine company commander in Helmand province told The New York Times in July that a lack of Afghan troops “is absolutely our Achilles heel.”
Solving that problem requires many more trainers, from our own military and our NATO allies. Supplying more trainers is the best recipe for success.
A larger Afghan military will need more equipment. I strongly urge the administration to send a large amount of military equipment now leaving Iraq to Afghanistan. It is troubling that we apparently do not have a list of Afghan army and police equipment requirements, nor an urgent plan for sending equipment from Iraq to Afghanistan to meet those requirements.
In Iraq, the shift of former Sunni insurgents into the “Sons of Iraq” groups opposing al Qaeda was a crucial development. And U.S. commanders see significant potential in Afghanistan to win over local Taliban fighters, many of whom are motivated by the need for a job or loyalty to a warlord and not by ideology or religious zeal. Gen. McChrystal himself has said, “There is significant potential to go after what I call mid- and low-level Taliban fighters and leaders and offer them re-integration into Afghanistan under the constitution.”
Despite that belief, Gen. McChrystal’s upcoming assessment apparently does not consider the impact an effort to win over these Taliban fighters would have. I believe it is necessary to promptly develop and implement a plan to attract the persuadable Taliban fighters.
Strengthening and supporting Afghan forces will give our new strategy of focusing on protecting the Afghan people a chance to work. I agree with Gen. McChrystal that shifting the momentum in our favor in Afghanistan is crucial. The best way to shift momentum is to rapidly field trained and equipped Afghan forces – in short, to surge the Afghan army and police before we consider whether to further increase U.S. combat forces.
Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.