Alarm Bells in Afghanistan

If the United States continues to focus the vast majority of its focus, resources, and troops in Iraq, it is unclear how we can accomplish the enormously challenging objectives set for Afghanistan.
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co-authored by Colin Cookman

The forgotten war in Afghanistan has once again leapt back into the news with disturbing reports of rising international casualties and large-scale Taliban offensives in the south.

Despite the fact that the United States has been in Afghanistan for almost seven years, the increasing violence in Afghanistan shows that the Afghan insurgents are not going away any time soon. Recent Pentagon assessments acknowledged that the Taliban is likely to "maintain or even increase the scope" of its insurgent campaign against the government in the coming year.

U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan surpassed those in Iraq for the second month in a row in June - despite the fact that the latter has nearly three times the amount of U.S. troops operating in the country. Suicide bombings, a tactic previously absent from the Afghan battlefields even after three decades of war, rose from just 21 in 2005 to over 140 in 2007; the number of roadside bombings increased to 2,615 in 2007 from 1,931 in 2006.

At the end of June, NATO and Afghan forces launched a major offensive against Taliban forces in response to the Taliban's seizure of at least 18 villages in Arghandab district. The attack followed a major jailbreak on June 21st in the southern province of Kandahar that freed as many as 1,200 prisoners, including between 350 and 400 Taliban fighters, some of them district-level commanders who rejoined the militants in Arghandab.

The Taliban stand in Arghandab district appears to have been a temporary one, as the insurgents melted away in the face of superior coalition firepower. However, smaller assaults continue across the south and in the east of the country, where NATO commanders report a 40 percent increase in the number of attacks in the past five months from a year ago. The Taliban's message to the Afghan people is a clear one: our reach is growing. With insufficient international and Afghan troop levels and a shortage of trained police NATO and Afghan forces may find it difficult to hold the territory for the long term. This whack-a-mole problem of consolidating temporary security gains with far too few troops to do the job has plagued the United States in Afghanistan since the Bush administration began its "invasion on the cheap" model, and will continue so long as Afghanistan remains a second-tier priority for administration policymakers.

While conservatives rationalize perpetuating America's presence in Iraq by virtue of tactical reductions of violence, the strategic costs of our entanglement there can be clearly seen in Afghanistan, where U.S. efforts continue to be under-resourced and neglected -- in the parlance of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, an "economy of force operation." "I don't have troops I can reach for," Mullen acknowledged recently, "until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq."

Ground commanders in Afghanistan, including outgoing commander of NATO-ISAF General Dan McNeill, have publicly requested anywhere between 100,000 and 400,000 more troops for the fight in Afghanistan. Yet the most recent NATO conference in Brussels once again concluded with little in the way of major commitments from European allies reluctant to shoulder the mission in Afghanistan. Germany subsequently pledged an additional thousand soldiers, but they will remain concentrated in the relatively peaceful north, where their contributions will remain limited. Embedded military trainers for the Afghan National Army are currently staffed at 44 percent of their requirements; police trainers, 39 percent. The strain Iraq continues to place on our overstretched military means there is little chance to fill in the gaps when our allies do not step up.

Defeating Afghan's insurgency will require more than adding troops. The insurgency will only be defeated over the long-term if the legitimacy and writ of the Afghan state increase and if the population's support for the insurgents diminishes. This will require bolstering Afghan's institutions, rooting out corruption, and improving the state's ability to provide services. It will also mean providing economic opportunities for Afghans so that they do not turn to opium or the insurgency for employment.

Again, U.S. involvement in Iraq has meant less attention and resources for meeting these important objectives in Afghanistan. At a recent international donors conference for Afghanistan in Paris, the United States pledged $10.2 billion over the next two years for the government's development strategy -- less than what is spent in a month of military operations in Iraq. Nor is it clear how much of this money will actually be disbursed to the Afghan government or if the United States has learned any lessons from the previous six and half years about how to make its aid more effective.

If the United States continues to focus the vast majority of its focus, resources, and troops in Iraq, it is unclear how we can accomplish these enormously challenging objectives in Afghanistan. Until U.S. leadership turns its attention and resources to the Afghan theater and the region, it will continue to play defense against a strengthening enemy.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst for National Security at the Center for American Progress. Colin Cookman is a Special Assistant for National Security at the Center for American Progress.

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