Turning Point Looms for the U.S. in Afghanistan

Turning Point Looms for the U.S. in Afghanistan

Monday marks the end of August, a month with both good and bad news out of Afghanistan — and the approach of a key turning point. Civilian casualties caused by Western attacks have fallen dramatically under a new edict from General Stanley McChrystal barring air strikes that risk innocent deaths . That’s designed to show the Afghan people that the U.S. military is a force for good in their country. But at the same time, U.S. troop deaths reached 45 in August, making it the deadliest month for American military personnel since the war began 94 months ago. That’s due to U.S. forces challenging the Taliban more directly, and the Taliban’s stepped-up use of roadside bombs to kill as many Western troops as possible.

Both elements signal the arrival of a pivot point in Afghanistan, and one that is looming in Washington. McChrystal, now shepherding the final 6,000 U.S. troops into the country to join the 62,000 already there, knows he needs even more forces to prevail. He’s expected to request them sometime before the war’s eighth birthday on Oct. 7. That prospect is being viewed coolly inside the Pentagon. But President Obama — who has declared the Afghan conflict his top national-security priority — isn’t expected to refuse his handpicked commander’s initial request for reinforcements, probably 10,000 to 20,000 more troops.

While McChrystal’s redeployed and reinforced troops appear to be making progress in various parts of Afghanistan, there remain staggering challenges. The key southern city of Kandahar — long the capital of Taliban might — appears increasingly under the sway of the insurgency. There are widespread reports of vote fraud in the Aug. 20 presidential election in which incumbent Hamid Karzai claims to be leading. What’s more, military and foreign-policy experts — some of whom have been advising McChrystal — say both the U.S. military and civilian presence is inadequate.

“President Obama inherited a disaster, a war which had been under-resourced horribly for at least six of the last seven and a half years,” former CIA official Bruce Riedel, who was tapped by the White House to review Afghan policy, said last week. Even if McChrystal gets whatever forces he feels he needs, the best one can hope for is that the situation may be stabilized in 12 to 18 months. “Anyone who thinks that in 12 to 18 months we’re going to be anywhere near victory is living in a fantasyland,” Riedel said.

Both Riedel and Anthony Cordesman, a military expert who has been advising McChrystal, mentioned Vietnam in their remarks to an audience at the Brookings Institution last week. That’s a ghost that strikes fear into the heart of many Democrats, who fear Obama may be treading down the same path in Afghanistan that President Johnson followed to political ruin — for him and his party — in Vietnam. “What I found, being in Afghanistan, was all too familiar of problems not only in Iraq but in Vietnam years ago,” Cordesman said. “We take the insurgency, and we define it in terms of tactical clashes rather than areas of influence.” The Taliban’s areas of influence have grown dramatically, he said.

Riedel warned that if the presidential election isn’t seen as legitimate, it could lead to the collapse of the central Afghan government. “If the government of Afghanistan now goes into free fall — something like the South Vietnamese governments of the 1960s — then all the troops in the world really aren’t going to matter,” Riedel said. “If we don’t have a government we can point to that has some basis of legitimacy in the country, the best generals, the best strategy, isn’t going to help turn it around.”

Still, even the specter of Vietnam is unlikely to dissuade Obama if he agrees with McChrystal’s request for more troops, Michael O’Hanlon, a defense expert at Brookings, told the same gathering. “The idea that a Democratic Congress would pull out the rug from underneath a President of their own party on what he has declared to be his top national-security priority before the midterm elections, to me, is unthinkable,” O’Hanlon said. He added that such an outcome won’t occur “until there is much more evidence that the strategy is failing.”

That’s surely a reassuring thought for McChrystal, bunkered down in Kabul. He knows the number of additional troops he may request needs to be as small as possible. That’s why he has ordered his subordinates to look into whether some troops that are performing administrative or logistical tasks — perhaps as many as 10,000 — could be replaced with trigger pullers. That would give McChrystal more firepower without boosting troop levels. And the Army is expected to issue contracts before year’s end to private firms to guard 50 or more U.S. bases in Afghanistan and the convoys that supply them, work currently being done by troops. “The number of personnel required at each location will be based on prior requirements,” the solicitation reads, “and may be modified or increased dependent upon mission needs.” Just like the real Army.

See pictures of Afghanistan’s dangerous Korengal Valley.

Read TIME’s 2004 cover story “Remember Afghanistan”