Afghanistan May Trump Iraq in War Debate

The just-returned former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, recently told reporters that the fight there was an "under-resourced war."

At a recent Pentagon town hall meeting, Mullen echoed those comments, calling Afghanistan "an economy of force campaign" and admitted, "We're short of forces there." He said that if the U.S. troop draw-downs continue in Iraq later this year, it would enable him to send to Afghanistan at least an additional three brigades, or 10,000 troops.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly pressed NATO allies to contribute additional forces for the fight in Afghanistan, often with little success. At April's NATO Summit in Bucharest, only France committed to sending more troops, an additional 700 that would be sent to eastern Afghanistan. Germany recently announced it would send 1,000 more troops, but only to the more stable northern part of the country.

After a recommendation from Gates, President Bush told NATO leaders at the Bucharest Summit that the U.S. would provide "significant" numbers of U.S. troops in 2009, when he will no longer be in office. Gates expressed confidence that the next administration would likely come through with the request, given the high level of bipartisan support for the fight in Afghanistan.

While McCain has acknowledged the importance of the conflict in Afghanistan, he maintains that Iraq is the central fight and should remain the focus of the military's efforts. However, McCain has called for more NATO troops, the establishment of permanent bases and the expansion of U.S. training for the Afghan army.

Obama, on the other hand, has made it a key element of his campaign that the war in Iraq was a costly diversion from the more critical effort in Afghanistan. He has proposed sending at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, as well as increasing nonmilitary aid to Afghanistan by at least $1 billion per year.

Michael O'Hanlon with the Brookings Institution argues that for Obama the drawing down of troops in Iraq will remain a bigger issue than Afghanistan. Namely because "people aren't going to mind sending two to three brigades to Afghanistan if we still have 15 in Iraq."

Military officials cite several reasons for the increase in violence, namely the Taliban's "safe haven" in the western tribal areas of Pakistan, where they can launch operations across the border into Afghanistan. Also, unable to defeat U.S. and NATO troops in conventional fighting, the various groups that make up the Taliban insurgency have resorted to tactics like those seen in Iraq, primarily the use of roadside bombs. A third factor cited by American commanders is that with more American troops on the ground than ever there is more combat as they move into areas controlled by insurgents.

Adm. Mullen said last week that in Afghanistan, "violence is up this year. Just about every single measure that we look at, it's up."

The commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Schloesser, was more precise last week when he said that the number of violent incidents in his sector had jumped by 40 percent in the first five months of this year over last year. This is in a region praised as a success story of American counterinsurgency efforts.

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