Amid growing speculation and partisan bickering over what President Barack Obama will do about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, an influential Democratic senator Monday warned against deploying tens of thousands more U.S. troops there.
Just back from a diplomatic triumph in Kabul, Sen. John Kerry criticized a military proposal to send some 40,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan as part of a major counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign to defeat the Taliban as "go[ing] too far, too fast."
"We have already begun implementing a counterinsurgency strategy but I believe that right now it needs to be as narrowly focused as possible," he told the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "We must be very wary of overextension. And I am particularly concerned about the potential for us to be viewed as foreign occupiers."
Afghanistan’s government, he went on, should with U.S. help make major advances in building up its own military and security forces and in providing better governance to its people before Washington commits substantially greater numbers of troops to the fight.
"Under the right circumstances, if we can be confident that military efforts can be sustained and built upon, then I would support the president should he decide to send some additional troops to regain the initiative," he said.
At the same time, he rejected what he called a "narrow counterterrorism [CT] mission" initially favored by Vice President Joseph Biden, according to published reports that would permit the administration to draw down the roughly 68,000 U.S. troops who are currently deployed to Afghanistan and rely on a strategy of drone and Special Forces strikes against leaders of al-Qaeda and allied groups.
"We all see the appeal of a limited counterterrorism mission and no doubt it is part of the endgame. But I don’t think we’re there yet," he said. "A narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war and put Pakistan at risk."
Moreover, he added, "we need boots on the ground" to obtain the intelligence needed to track down terrorist targets.
Kerry’s speech comes at a critical moment in the ongoing public and internal administration debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, a debate that is certain to become more intense after Monday’s crashes in two separate incidents of three U.S. helicopters.
A total of 11 troops and three anti-drug agents were killed in what was the single deadliest day for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in more than four years.
It also comes in the wake of an extended trip by Kerry to Kabul where he reportedly played a major role in persuading President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election next month against his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
That success, which was widely noted in the mainstream media, will likely give him additional influence both among his fellow Democrats in Congress, who appear split on Afghanistan, and within the Obama White House, with which he has consulted closely over the past 10 months.
Obama has been deliberating for more than a month on a bleak analysis of the situation in Afghanistan submitted in August by his top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
The review argued that only a large-scale COIN campaign designed to provide security in key population centers and accelerate the training of Afghan forces can reverse the momentum that has been running in the Taliban’s favor for the past several years.
While McChrystal’s report, which was leaked to the Washington Post in September, did not state explicitly how many U.S. troops would be needed to accomplish the mission, insiders suggested that the general and his immediate superior, the chief of the Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. David Petraeus, were hoping for a total of at least 100,000.
Since the leak, most Republican leaders have called on Obama, who has held a series of meetings on Afghanistan with his top national security advisers over the last several weeks, to urgently adopt McChrystal’s proposed strategy and any number of troops that he requests.
Last week, former vice president Dick Cheney accused Obama of "dithering while America’s armed forces are in danger," a charge that has since been taken up with enthusiasm by right-wing and neoconservative hawks in Congress and the media.
In his remarks Monday, Kerry took on Cheney directly, noting that it was the former vice president "who in 2002 told America that ‘the Taliban regime is out of business, permanently.’"
"Make no mistake," he went on, "because of the gross mishandling of this war by past civilian leadership, there are no great options for its handling today."
Kerry praised McChrystal, noting that "he understands the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area," specifically in the Pashtun regions of eastern and southern Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest.
"But I believe his current plan reaches too far, too fast," he said, adding, "We do not yet have the critical guarantees of governance and development capacity the other two legs of counterinsurgency."
"[D]ecisions about additional troops," he said, should be based on an assessment of three conditions.
"First, are there enough reliable Afghan forces to partner with American troops and eventually to take over responsibility for security?" he asked, stressing the importance of "on-the-job training as soon as possible."
"The second question is, are there local leaders we can partner with? We have to be able to identify and cooperate with tribal, district and provincial leaders who command the authority to help deliver services and restore Afghans’ faith in their own government," he said.
"Third, is the civilian side ready to follow swiftly with development aid that brings tangible benefits to the local population?" he asked, noting that, "Progress on this front is expected in the coming months with a significant influx of U.S. civilians and efforts to work with the Afghan government to implement reforms."
"[A]bsent an urgent strategic imperative," he said, "we need a valid assessment by the president and other appropriate civilian authorities not just the military that those three conditions will be met before we consider sending more soldiers and Marines to clear new areas."
(Inter Press Service)