Talk of a Troop Surge for Afghanistan

U.S. marines are on the way, but much now depends on whether France sends reinforcements.

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As the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq fades from the front pages, analysts are turning their attention to what is often called the forgotten war. Many fear that progress in Afghanistan is stalled and that the country is in need of major new measures to reinvigorate the war effort against the Taliban and other extremist factions.

To that end, talk is increasingly turning to a troop surge for Afghanistan. The conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, which was instrumental in designing the current surge strategy in Iraq, in January convened an "Afghanistan Planning Group" that will shortly announce recommendations for an influx of troops into Afghanistan as well. "It's clear to everyone who looks at it that more troops are necessary in Afghanistan," says Frederick Kagan, an AEI fellow and an architect of the surge strategy in Iraq.

It is clear to U.S. military officials that efforts in Afghanistan are faltering and that more troops could help turn the tide. Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and now the deputy chairman of NATO's military committee, says that there is currently a shortage of maneuver and infantry forces in the country. What' s more, he adds, there are not enough troops to train the Afghan Army and police. "That's the greatest shortfall," he adds.

To that end, the U.S. is now sending some 3,200 marines into the country. Half of them will serve as trainers, and the other half will serve as combat troops backing up British troops in violent, drug-producing Helmand province.

But American soldiers—stretched to the limit in Iraq—are at a premium. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has repeatedly called on NATO member countries to contribute more troops to the troubled country. To date, these pleas have not inspired an overwhelming response among NATO partner countries.

But senior defense officials expect some announcements to come at next month's NATO summit in Bucharest, including a possible commitment by France to send as many as 700 additional troops (France currently has about 1,600 in the country, most stationed around the capital of Kabul).

The NATO summit is "high political stakes," says Eikenberry. "We think that the French will make an offer," adds a senior defense official. "If they make an offer, it's going to be to go into eastern or southern Afghanistan, the most troubled areas." The Canadian Parliament has agreed to extend its military mission of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan until 2011, but only if NATO countries send 1,000 more troops to back them up in the violent Kandahar province.

France's contribution would enable U.S. military planners to shuffle American forces from the East and move them into the increasingly violent South where attacks tend to be concentrated, says the defense official. "The French fight very well; I'd be happy to see them there," adds Kagan.

In the meantime, Eikenberry says that he expects an increase in high-profile terrorist attacks from extremist Taliban forces. Moving troops into targeted troubled areas could help tamp down violence. Eikenberry points out that 70 percent of attacks in Afghanistan are concentrated in roughly 10 percent of the districts of Afghanistan.

Currently, a graph of monthly bomb attacks is trending upward. "It looks exactly the way you would want your stock portfolio to look," says one senior military official. "And that's exactly how you don't want IED trends to look."