WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration and Congress begin a heated debate about how many more American troops to send to Afghanistan, military observers, soldiers on the ground there and some top Pentagon officials are warning that dispatching even tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines might not ensure success.
Some even fear that deploying more U.S. troops, especially in the wake of a U.S. airstrike last week that killed and wounded scores of Afghan civilians, would convince more Afghans that the Americans are occupiers rather than allies and relieve the pressure on the Afghan government to improve its own security forces.
The heart of the problem, soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and some officials in Washington told McClatchy, is that neither Barack Obama's White House nor the Pentagon has clearly defined America's mission in Afghanistan. As a result, some soldiers in the field said, they aren't sure what their objectives are.
Current officials and military officers who're wary of escalation refused to speak on the record because they aren't authorized to talk to the media and because doing so would be hazardous to their careers.
"Gen. McChrystal's latest assessment reportedly indicates that the situation in Afghanistan is 'serious,' " said former deputy secretary of state and Pentagon official Richard Armitage, referring to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan. "President Obama needs to define, more clearly than he has so far, what our country's objectives in Afghanistan are and his strategy for achieving them. Without that, it's impossible to assess whether the mission requires additional troops."
The administration's stated goals in Afghanistan have ranged from eliminating the threat posed by al Qaida — which is based in neighboring Pakistan, not in Afghanistan — and building a stable democratic state, depending on what administration official is speaking and when.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to define the administration's strategy. He said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban not only provided al Qaida refuge, but also "cooperated and collaborated" with the terrorist group. Because of that, he said, the U.S. must ensure that a stable government exists in Afghanistan so the Taliban — and ultimately al Qaida — can't return.
The situation in Afghanistan, including last month's still-inconclusive election and McChrystal's review, have made it hard for the president to speak out more definitively, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution who was in Afghanistan for the August election.
Obama must do so soon, however, O'Hanlon said: "He can't expect the country to continue to tolerate a mission that he himself has not explained."
Obama may explain it soon, although the timing and format haven't been decided, administration officials said.
His choices are problematic. A withdrawal from Afghanistan would bring disastrous foreign policy consequences, but adding troops is no guarantee of success.
Although recent polls have found public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing, aides said the president is committed to the effort but aware of the need to avoid wading into a quagmire.
"Momentum is a terrible way to make decisions," said a senior White House official who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Obama will avoid decisions that "will bind the country forever," he said.
Obama, of course, inherited a war without a strategy. George H.W. Bush turned his back on Afghanistan after the Soviet Union withdrew; Bill Clinton never confronted the growing al Qaida threat there despite a series of terrorist attacks; and George W. Bush chose to invade Iraq rather than concentrate on the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan.
The White House is due to send a series of benchmarks for measuring progress in Afghanistan to Congress by Sept. 24, where support for the effort is eroding among liberal Democrats and even some conservatives.
Officials, however, concede that no amount of additional American force can by itself ensure success.
Even the limited goal of eradicating al Qaida requires substantially more cooperation from Pakistan than the country has provided so far — or than U.S. military and intelligence officials and diplomats privately say they expect amid mounting anti-Americanism there.
U.S. officials say the electronic components for improvised explosives are being assembled and smuggled in from Pakistan, and cross-border infiltration continues unchecked, including now into northern Afghanistan. Mullah Mohammed Omar and other Taliban leaders based in Quetta, Pakistan, and allied with al Qaida remain free to direct the insurgency, and other insurgents continue to shuttle young Islamist recruits from radical mosques and schools in Pakistan to training camps near the Afghan border and then into Afghanistan.
Critics worry that a likely middle course — sending more American troops to train and expand the Afghan security forces — can't assure success, either, because those forces are controlled by a government that's riddled with corruption and more feared than respected by its people. Widespread allegations of fraud in last month's presidential election have only compounded the problem, officials conceded.
While analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan are overdrawn, O'Hanlon said, there's one similarity: the need for a strong local partner, which the United States didn't have in South Vietnam.
"We're in a heap of trouble if we don't have a good local partner," he said.
To complicate matters, several senior officials said, curbing drug trafficking, rooting out official corruption, improving women's rights and creating a central government that's widely accepted as legitimate are all political, not military, objectives.
The corruption extends from police who resell U.S.-supplied gasoline and water, to mid-level Afghan military commanders who siphon off money that's intended to purchase food for their troops, to the top of the Karzai government. And it has denied ordinary Afghans the opportunity to have their grievances addressed, except by local Taliban kangaroo courts and shadow governments. Many Afghans have all but given up on corrupt government security officials, instead turning to local warlords and Taliban leaders to help them survive.
U.S. officers in Afghanistan said Afghan security forces also are helping smuggle weapons the Taliban use to attack U.S.-led troops from Pakistan into Afghanistan. In addition, said a senior Afghan officer, weapons and ammunition supplied to the Afghan army and police are also being stolen and sold to the Taliban.
"There is great corruption in the Ministry of Defense," the officer said. "Everyone is looking for money."
Despite the Obama administration's decision to send 17,500 more troops and 4,000 trainers in this year, violence is at its highest level of the eight-year war. Attacks against coalition forces are at their highest, too, with at least 308 troops killed in 2009, which last month became the deadliest year of the war.
Military leaders and some in the administration and Congress concede that the situation is deteriorating and that the options aren't appealing. However, they argue, doing nothing would be worse.
O'Hanlon said the steady drumbeat of bad news, while real, has overshadowed other factors.
"In the places where we have added troops, there is at least some hopefulness," he said. In addition, he said, not all the additional troops, civilian resources and strategy changes that Obama approved in March have come fully into play.
"I tend to believe in the strategy," O'Hanlon said. "But I think it's important to acknowledge that . . . even if we do everything right, we could still fail."
In an interview last week with Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, U.S. Central Command commander Gen. David Petraeus said: "I don't think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources. But it won't work out if we don't."
Officials who've read McChrystal's assessment say it doesn't ask for more troops directly, which is expected in a separate document later this month.
However, they said, the U.S. commander spells out a dire scenario that all but says he needs more troops. The Afghan forces need more training, the assessment says, without saying how many; the mission needs more civilians; and the coalition needs to move its forces out of remote outposts and toward population centers.
The request could be for as many as 45,000 troops; a compromise would send about 21,000 more. There are now 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The addition of more troops, some U.S. experts and officers said, will mean more targets for the Taliban to attack. That in turn will likely produce more civilian casualties, which would fuel greater disdain for the U.S.-led military presence and the Kabul government, creating more recruits for the insurgents.
The additional U.S. and allied casualties also would produce political consequences in Washington and other NATO capitals, which are already confronting rising popular opposition to the war. Those tensions in turn could further strain the already troubled trans-Atlantic alliance.
(Landay reported from Afghanistan.)