Dec 23, 2007

Afghanistan, Afghanistan: Go fly a Kite

Reading the print edition of the Los Angeles Times for December 22, I found a good illustration of how an ordinary article in a generally well-respected paper tends to spin for the administration. The headline in the Times is “No force 'surge' for Afghanistan.” (Section A, page 3). However, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates did not even use the term “surge” in his press conference:

“You're talking about probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500 troops . . . So it's not like moving 100,000 troops from one place to the other or something like that.”

Note the deceptive analogy put forth by Secretary Gates by speaking of 100,000 troops. Since that number would almost quadruple the force (given by the Times as 26,000) already in Afghanistan, the comparison was hardly apt, being well beyond an exaggeration. Surge indeed. More like a tsunami at that number. But notice how even in its headline, the Times couldn't do the math correctly to back up its choice of words.

If the total US forces in Afghanistan are at 26,000 as the LATimes reports, an additional 7,500 would certainly qualify to be called a “surge.” That is a 28.8% increase. For comparison, in the so-called “surge” in Iraq, a total of (eventually) 30,000+ troops were added to an existing force of 128,000 which were on the ground early in 2007. The “surge” in Iraq therefore was a percentage increase of roughly 23%. So the question for the Times's staff headline writers and their editors is why present a headline that will seriously misrepresent the increase requested by the Afghanistan commanders? If 23.4% in Iraq qualifies as a "surge," why doesn't 28.8% in Afghanistan?

In other words, the Times tells its readers, we're not going to have to increase our commitment that much. Don't get worried. The increase is minuscule. Certainly not like the surge in Iraq.

But in fact, is this the case? Do we even know how many American troops are fighting in Afghanistan? What is the source for the Times's figure of 26,000? They never tell us where they got the figure, even though Pentagon policy tends to keep the exact number obscured.

What, for example, did Gates and his companion at the press conference, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, actually say about total troop size in Afghanistan? I excerpt from the text of the press conference itself. This comes from Gates and the General toward the end when speaking of the request from the commander for more troops:

But the bottom line is, you're -- if you have satisfied every requirement he has, you're talking about probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 7,500 troops. So it's not like moving 100,000 troops from one place to the other or something like that.

And we will be looking at the requirements ourselves, and we will be talking with our allies. But there is clearly, in the view even of the commander on the -- in the field, no requirement for a substantial plus-up of forces in Afghanistan to meet -- to accomplish his mission.

(To the general.) Do you want to add anything --

GEN. CARTWRIGHT: No, I think that's right. It's -- one, it's playing to the strength of your allies, and two, the delta -- we started the year at about 35,000. We're ending the year about 43(,000). And we're trying to make sure that what it is we're doing out there is aligned with the need. To the extent that it is -- that there are needs, it is -- it's about in the 7,500 -- but it's spread across combat-type forces, trainers, et cetera. And so we're trying to make sure we understand that and then target our allies for those capabilities which play to their strengths.

Since the context of the press conference included the trip to Scotland to meet with NATO allies, probably Cartwright was referring to total NATO forces, which were at 41,000 as of July.

However, if Cartwright is referring to the combined NATO forces, he's indicated an increase has already taken place. His statement does not jibe with the recent (less than two weeks old) information from Afghanistan. On December 10, 2007 Gwen Ifill interviewed General Dan McNeill, the International Force Commander, on the Online News Hour. He answered her question about the anticipated needs of the International Force in Afghanistan. Are more NATO forces need? Are more Afghan security forces needed?

I think it means both. By U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, we should have security forces that total well over 400,000. That's not going to happen. The present plan in the international community is to build the Afghan army to a force between 70,000 and 80,000. The police, I believe, the figure is 82,000. NATO right now is running about 41,000.

McNeill says "right now" but that 41,00 figure in turn appears to repeat information as of July, as reported by Pierre Tristram on Middle East Issues. And that in turn appears to have been based on a Congressional Research Service report from March, 2007. So either McNeill was using those July figures, or perhaps Cartwright knows something McNeill doesn't? It is difficult to get an exact count of United States deployments to Afghanistan, because, according to both Tristram and the CRS, the Department of Defense does not report troop strength.

Note what the remarks were in the press conference from Secretary Gates:

But there is clearly, in the view even of the commander on the -- in the field, no requirement for a substantial plus-up of forces in Afghanistan to meet -- to accomplish his mission.

While McNeill knows that the troops suggested in the insurgency manual are "not going to happen," he clearly needs more troops and clearly has put in a request for the 7,500, but Gates is playing with words here--in terms of what is in place, whether 26,000, 41,000 or 43,000--when he says "no requirement for a substantial plus-up in Afghanistan." Clearly more troops are needed by the ground commander, and 7,500 is substantial. It's just not substantial in terms of that dream number McNeill cited of "well over 400,000" or substantial in terms of Gates's 100,000.

The war in Afghanistan isn't going well. Karzai has asked for more help. Some of the NATO countries are clearly getting uncomfortable with the losing battle and are resisting the US's requests for additional support. According to Gates, the Dutch have re-upped for another two years and other countries are going to keep contributing. Poppy production is at an all-time high. But casualties are increasing. This year, suicide bombings have increased to 130. Civilian casualties, at 2600, are double those of last year. As of today, according to, 115 U.S. and 114 coalition soldiers have been killed this year .

Two other items in the press conference should be pointed out. First, Gates reminded the reporters that that at least least 5,700 troops will be coming home by the end of the year. The White House itself in its Presidential press release for November 29, 2007 has tried to pass this off as a result of the surge (“5,700: Guided by the principle of 'return on success,' the United States will bring 5,700 troops home by the end of the year as a result of progress made by the surge of operations.”). I think it was Juan Cole who pointed out earlier in the year that these troops were scheduled to be withdrawn in December anyway. Any arguments that the troops would be coming home from Iraq because of the "surge" is highly suspect as spin.

Second, one of reporters--referred to as "Jim" by the Secretary of Defense--actually tries to provoke Gates to give an answer:

Mr. Secretary, the highly respected retired Army General Barry McCaffrey just returned to the U.S. from an extensive tour in Iraq and he was there about the same time you were. And he said that what was striking to him is once you get outside the Green Zone, the national government, in a practical sense, for the people of Iraq just doesn't exist. And he said in fact, the U.S. military on the ground serves that purpose, in assuring that the local populations get the kind of basic services that they need, which are actually required for long-term stability.

And he warns that if you take the military out, all that goes away.

Since the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq is conditional, would that be an absolute condition, that there has to be political reconciliation, political progress made by the national government before substantial numbers of American troops can be withdrawn from Iraq? And what kind of assurances did you get in your meeting with
Maliki that he was willing to make progress on those issues?

It's a shame the reporter had to obfuscate his provocative reference to McCaffrey with his questions about "absolute conditions" and "assurances from Maliki." Why not just ask what Gates's response was to McCaffrey's observation? The elaborations just allowed Gates to temporize and blather. Although Gates completely --and predictably--avoided addressing the "highly respected" McCaffrey, he in effect supported McCaffrey's contention:

And creating -- getting the ministries down into the provincial and local areas, you know, frankly -- I mean, this is a challenge we face in Afghanistan, as well. It's a challenge that many developing countries face.

Gates passed the buck. Everything will have to depend on the judgment of Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus "next spring." You may remember that last spring we were told to wait for General Petraeus to report in September. In the spring of 2008 I am sure, we will postpone the decision until the end of summer.
And watch how that September 2008 answer will do everything possible to frame success in time for the Presidential elections in November. And so it goes.

(As an aside, I also find it unfortunate that Gates, in talking at the beginning of the conference about his visits to wounded troops and their families, described them as “close encounters.” Unfortunate, I think, because the phrase, in our contemporary movie culture, connotes that the injured troops and their families are aliens. The secretary should not use the phrase again, and I hope that he or his his staff will avoid the inept phrase in the future.)

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