US Military Says Its Force in Afghanistan Is Insufficient
BAGRAM, Afghanistan - American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama's chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders.
The commanders emphasized problems in southern Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents continue to bombard towns and villages with rockets despite a new influx of American troops, and in eastern Afghanistan, where the father-and-son-led Haqqani network of militants has become the main source of attacks against American troops and their Afghan allies.
The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud.
The assessments come as the top American commander in the country, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, has been working to complete a major war strategy review, and as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, described a worsening situation in Afghanistan despite the recent addition of 17,000 American troops ordered by the Obama administration and the extra security efforts surrounding the presidential election.
"I think it is serious and it is deteriorating," Admiral Mullen said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union" program. "The Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics." He added that General McChrystal was still completing his review and had not yet requested additional troops on top of the those added by Mr. Obama.
The American commanders in Afghanistan spoke this weekend with Richard C. Holbrooke, Mr. Obama's special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the past two days, Mr. Holbrooke visited all four regional command centers in Afghanistan, and the message from all four followed similar lines: while the additional American troops, along with smaller increases from other NATO members, have had some benefit in the south, the numbers remain below what commanders need. The total number of American soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan is now about 57,000. It was unclear whether the commanders told Mr. Holbrooke exactly how many additional troops might be required.
Eastern Afghanistan, in particular, has been a trouble spot. On Sunday, during Mr. Holbrooke's stop at the Bagram military base, Maj. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of the United States and NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, told him and visiting reporters that the Haqqani network was expanding its reach. "We've seen that expansion, and that's part of what we're fighting," he said. American commanders believe that the network, whose leaders Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son Sirajuddin have been linked to Al Qaeda, are using sanctuaries in Pakistan to launch attacks against American and Afghan forces.
The problems in Afghanistan have been aggravated by what the American commanders call the Pakistani military's limited response to the threat of militants based there. Although General Scaparrotti said that cooperation by Pakistan and the United States against the militants had improved recently, he stressed that it was important for the Pakistanis to keep up the pressure, particularly after the reported killing of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud.
That echoed concerns from Obama administration officials who worry that with the absence of Mr. Mehsud, who was the Pakistani government's enemy No. 1, the military would shift its emphasis away from the tribal areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda operate. "They think it's ‘game over,' " one senior administration official said. "It's more like, ‘game over, next level.' "
The White House has been concerned about declining support for the war among the American public. After recent polls illustrating the decline, Admiral Mullen and Karl W. Eikenberry, a retired general who is the ambassador to Afghanistan, went on Sunday talk shows to discuss the direction of the mission.
"I'm certainly aware of the criticality of support of the American people for this war and in fact, any war," Admiral Mullen said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "And so certainly the numbers are of concern. That said, the president's given me and the American military a mission, and that focuses on a new strategy, new leadership, and we're moving very much in that direction."
He said, "I believe we've got to start to turn this thing around from a security standpoint in the next 12 to 18 months."
Mr. Holbrooke visited regional command centers in Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Bagram on Saturday and Sunday. Speaking to Afghan reporters at the NATO base in Mazar-i-Sharif, Mr. Holbrooke said that part of the new strategy would include reaching out to members of the Taliban who show a willingness to lay down their arms. Many Taliban fighters, Mr. Holbrooke said, "fight because they're misguided, or because they want a job."
"Anyone who renounces Al Qaeda and comes back to work peacefully in the Afghan system," he continued, "will be welcome."
American lawmakers intensified their criticism of President Hamid Karzai, saying his government had not done enough to crack down on corruption and the drug trade that fuels the insurgency. Senator Robert P. Casey Jr., Democrat of Pennsylvania, told reporters at a dinner on Sunday at the American Embassy in Kabul that he had told Mr. Karzai, "There's going to come a time when the patience of Americans will run out." Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who was also at the dinner, said: "Time is not running out next week, but they have to show results. It's the last chance."
Concerns about fraud in the election have brought more complaints to Afghan officials. Mr. Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, told a news conference in Kabul on Sunday that the number of suspected irregularities had been "alarming."
Afghanistan's Election Complaints Commission said Sunday that it had made a priority of investigating 35 complaints, including allegations of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and violence. The commission, jointly led by Western and Afghan officials, said it had received 225 complaints of irregularities.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Eric Schmitt and Brian Knowlton from Washington.