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Turn Early Iraq Withdrawal into Larger Afghan Surge


This morning Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated that in Iraq, “There’s at least some chance of a modest acceleration [of the drawdown] because of the way General Odierno sees things going. But that remains to be seen.”

According to the New York Times and as indicated by the Pentagon, two Brigade Combat Teams (roughly 10,000 soldiers) are scheduled to leave Iraq — without replacements — by the end of 2009; Gates believes an additional BCT (5,000 soldiers) could leave by then as well.

General Odierno — commander of all forces in Iraq, and General Petraeus’s top deputy during the Surge — believes conditions on the ground have improved quicker than expected, and the drawdown may be accelerated without undercutting Iraqi gains on the ground. The Iraqis are indeed stepping up, as news reports have independently verified as of late.

It also sounds like this decision is not set in stone, and if conditions worsen, the drawdown could be slowed; as Gates says, “This remains to be seen.” So, on the face of it, this looks like a conditions-based assessment, based on recommendations of commanders on the ground and without a fixed-timeline. All good stuff.

At the same time, the news out of Afghanistan is more complicated. The fight is tough, and definitely under-resourced (as it has been for some time). Bing West outlined the shortages well in today’s Wall Street Journal. We need more troops, more equipment, and a clear commitment to a sustained counter-insurgency mission.

In light of this fact, why not use the early drawdown in Iraq as an opportunity to quickly shift even more troops to Afghanistan? Provided the Army and Marine Corps can facilitate the logistical platforms necessary to support even more war-fighters, a sudden — and unexpected — surge of even more troops into Afghanistan would knock the enemy off balance and allow U.S. troops to truly hold the ground, and not just clear it (which was our 2004-2006 mistake in Iraq).

More troops, more helicopters, and more trainers are badly needed in Afghanistan — and this shift could alleviate that.  Bing West also calls for these. However I disagree with Bing when he writes “A year from now, coalition forces should be able to gradually withdraw [from Afghanistan].” I’m not sure we should be talking “withdrawal” yet, even though that is the desired end state for everyone. 

Succeeding in Afghanistan will require a prolonged commitment, for numerous reasons. And before we bring our boys home, we need to give them the chance to choke out the enemy (with more troops and aggressive COIN operations) and drastically grow the Afghan National Army to replace them (which comes with better security and more trainers). It will take years, not months to create the conditions necessary for the Afghan government and security forces to stand on their own.


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