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Conflating the Afghanistan Numbers


This morning, the Washington Post reported (and the Huffington Post predictably amplified) that an additional 13,000 combat “support” troops will be sent to Afghanistan, bringing the actual total increase approved by Obama in March of this year to 34,000. In total, this addition “raised the number of U.S. troops deployed to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan above the peak during the Iraq ’surge’ that President George W. Bush ordered.”

Fancy math, but none of this is particularly significant.

Combat troops — like the 21,000 additional troops announced by President Obama earlier this year — always necessitate additional support units. As the article notes, Pres. George W. Bush did the same thing when he announced the Iraq surge, announcing 20,000 additional troops, but actually sending close to 30,000 . . . once support troops were factored in. So this non-announcement had President Obama channeling President Bush.

That said, those opposed to additional troop increases in Afghanistan will seize on this report as evidence that we have already sent more additional troops to Afghanistan than were included in the Iraq surge. And while this is techincally correct, it conflates the truth behind the numbers.

First off, the additional troops President Obama ordered in March 2009 were intended to “stop the bleeding” in Afghanistan, and support upcoming elections. They were also part of a long overdue deliverable to U.S. Commanders in Afghanistan, who had been asking for more troops for a long time. On the contrary, the surge in Iraq was meant to turn the tide and “win the war.”  It was a decisive strategy to defeat al-Qaeda and create the conditions for Iraqi control.

The troops President Obama sent in March could not accomplish the same ends as the Iraq surge, for reasons largely the result of President Bush’s priorities. However, the decision facing President Obama in Afghanistan is truly parallel to the Iraq surge decision that faced President Bush. Will he send the troops necessary — between 40,000 and 60,000 additional — to turn the tide, defeat al-Qaeda, and create the conditions for Afghan control? That is at issue.

Second, we already had roughly 130,000 troops in Iraq when President Bush announced the Iraq surge. In Afghanistan, once the March increase is completely, we will still only have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan.  Even with an increase of 40,000 troops, the U.S. will still have less troops in Afghanistan (108,000) than it ever had in Iraq, and Afghanistan is larger and arguably more complicated. 

Nothing revealed today has stagering significance to the current Afghanistan debate; instead we should focus on the resources needed to win.


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