In Afghanistan, U.S. Forces Face Growing Challenges—And a Rising Death Toll

The resurgent Taliban is drawing more U.S. forces into the battle.

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There is an old adage about infantry officers: "Frequently wrong but never in doubt." It suggests a self-deprecating willingness to forge ahead with can-do verve under less-than-ideal conditions. A retired general brought it up during a briefing last month on his recent trip to Afghanistan, as he recalled the enthusiasm with which U.S. troops are gamely trying to fix the country.

The problem, both Pentagon officials and troops themselves agree, is that their efforts aren't enough. Overstretched military forces coupled with too few diplomats and economic development experts and a corrupt government in a desperately poor country  have led to disheartening deterioration in Afghanistan. U.S. troop deaths are at their highest level since the war began. More than 130 have been killed this year, with the monthly toll for forces throughout the country now exceeding that in Iraq. Roadside bombings are up some 40 percent over last year. And an increasingly capable Taliban—with new high-tech, all-weather camping gear and strict orders not to punish villagers for supposed Islamic infractions such as listening to music—is growing stronger.

The NATO commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Gen. David McKiernan, has made unusually public appeals for 15,000 more troops "as quickly as possible" to bolster the current 33,000 U.S. troops on the ground. But he may have to tread water for some time: While he's been promised some 5,700 more by January, the Pentagon doesn't have additional troops to send until spring or summer of 2009, when drawdowns in Iraq are expected. In the meantime, McKiernan warns, Afghanistan "might get worse before it gets better."

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama favor sending more forces. Obama advocates redirecting American troops otherwise planned for Iraq, while McCain has been less specific about how to balance the manpower demands of the two conflicts on the strained U.S. military. Both candidates have vowed to rout al Qaeda terrorists in western Pakistan; that's the area "where the greatest threat to the homeland lies," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress last month.

Around Washington, there is talk of applying some of the counterinsurgency lessons of Iraq to Afghanistan. By that, most mean a military "surge" and the possibility of an "Awakening"-style movement modeled on the Iraqi program in which the U.S. military has been paying Sunni insurgents to stop fighting American troops and work with them instead.

But there are considerable dangers in drawing too many parallels between America's two wars, U.S. military officials warn. At the Pentagon and in the operation centers of Kabul, U.S. officials note that Iraq and Afghanistan bear little fundamental resemblance to each other. Afghanistan, they add, is the more complicated conflict. "A far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq," is how McKiernan describes it.

This is the case in no small part because Afghanistan covers an area 50 percent larger than Iraq but has no tradition of strong central government and a more intricate network of tribes and ethnicities. The most harrowing difference, however, is that in contrast to Iraq's vast oil reserves and its mostly literate, cable TV-viewing population, Afghanistan is desperately poor and uneducated. "This is one of the most miserable places on the face of the Earth," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a West Point professor who travels frequently to the region.

These factors make America's Afghanistan involvement a daunting undertaking. "We could, to some extent, buy ourselves out of our problems in Iraq. We can't do that in Afghanistan," says one senior U.S. official, who adds that he was "always convinced" that America could win in Iraq. In Afghanistan, he says, "I'm not so sure."

America is clearly not winning there at the moment. That's the judgment offered by the top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, during congressional testimony last month. And an upcoming National Intelligence Estimate will "present a fairly grim assessment" of the war as it stands in Afghanistan, one that makes it clear that "we're pretty concerned about where we're going," according to a senior Pentagon official.