Lingering decisions on how quickly the Pentagon can get U.S. forces out of Iraq and into Afghanistan are being pushed off until after the Obama administration takes over next week, as military commanders wrangle over where the troops are needed most.
By the end of this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to approve sending more Marines to southern Afghanistan, effectively lowering their numbers in Iraq's western Anbar province, and he may also endorse deploying an Army brigade equipped with armored Stryker vehicles. Senior military officials say there is general agreement to cut back on the 22,000 Marines in Iraq, but Army officials have concerns about how to free up the Stryker unit.
As the Pentagon looks to double the existing force in Afghanistan, the overall cast of the military's growing force in Afghanistan is becoming clearer: Commanders want to beef up the expeditionary units and trainers in the south and east with enough new troops to stem the violence without becoming an occupying force that would alienate the Afghan population.
Their challenge, however, is to get troops out into the hundreds of tiny villages in the volatile southern region, where the Taliban insurgency has been centered. To do that, Gen. David McKiernan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked for more mobile forces and believes the strykers will allow soldiers to move more easily along the rugged trails to the widely dispersed tribal enclaves.
Stryker brigades come outfitted with several hundred eight-wheeled, 19-ton Stryker vehicles, which offer greater protection than a Humvee and are more maneuverable than the heavily armored mine-resistant vehicles that are being used across Iraq.
U.S. forces strained by two missions
With generals heading the Iraq war reluctant to give up troops, and those in Afghanistan demanding more help, Pentagon officials have been struggling to stretch an already-strained force to meet both needs. But as President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office, there is already increasing pressure to rapidly reduce forces in Iraq, to meet Obama's stated intention to make Afghanistan a higher priority.
A key unanswered question — which will ultimately determine the size and makeup of the force — is what the Obama administration's goal in Afghanistan will be.
Will he continue President George W. Bush's emphasis on spreading freedom and democracy? That would create the need for an extensive, lengthy and diverse effort to stabilize and modernize the weak Afghan government, build infrastructure and require a commitment for decades or more.
Or will he say the mission is simply to do enough military damage there to ensure that Taliban, al-Qaida and other terror groups in Afghanistan and along the Pakistan border are dismantled or defeated enough to prevent another attack on America?
In an interview during his final days in office, Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, told The Associated Press that he believes the fight for democracy must go on, and that more special operations forces are needed in Afghanistan.
"I think it's important for this new administration not to lose the emphasis on the importance of freedom and democracy as an element of succeeding in Iraq and Afghanistan, and succeeding in the war on terror," Hadley said.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters that Obama and his national security team are still discussing their Afghanistan strategy and how it will take shape.
Fundamentally, Morrell said, it will be a counterinsurgency fight and the next president, advised by Gates and his military leaders, "will ultimately come to some understanding about where this president wants to lead the mission in Afghanistan."
A second challenge is how to meet the need for various support forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pentagon wants 30,000 additional troops
Under a U.S.-Iraq security agreement, American combat forces must be out of Iraqi cities by June, and out of the country by 2011. But support forces — ranging from intelligence and surveillance experts to engineers and logistics personnel — are specialists the Iraqis don't have and will continue to need.
At the same time, those are the same forces McKiernan needs in Afghanistan to build the infrastructure for his growing force and to enhance surveillance, particularly along the Pakistan border.
Pentagon officials have said they plan to send up to 30,000 additional troops to the Afghan war, including four combat brigades and thousands of support forces. Of those, Gates said three brigades and some of the support troops will go in by summer. A brigade is roughly 3,500 troops.
Even as decisions on major units have been delayed, Gates this week approved the deployment of about 2,000 new support troops to Afghanistan, including about 660 Navy sailors from a construction and engineering unit based in Gulfport, Miss. The others include military police, medical personnel and other logistics specialists, senior military officials said.
The sailors — known as Seabees — can deploy quickly for emergencies or disasters to build roads, bridges and other facilities. A few hundred Seabees serving in Kuwait have already been transferred to Afghanistan, according to the Navy.
There are currently 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 15,000 with the NATO-led coalition and 18,000 fighting insurgents and training the Afghan army and police. There are 142,000 U.S. troops in Iraq — still more than the total there before the force build-up which began in early 2007, credited in part for the decline in violence.
Future troops levels also depend on the outcome of several military reviews of the Afghanistan strategy that are under way or recently completed, including a key administration study that Bush officials expect to deliver to the Obama White House.
By the end of the month, Gates is expected to approve the deployment of the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade to Afghanistan. But senior officials say they are still working out the numbers. A MEB can vary in size and makeup, and can swell to as many as 20,000 Marines, although a total that high is unlikely.