In something of a surprise move, the Pentagon is sending an additional 1,400 Marines to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. personnel there to about 97,000. In addition, U.S. commanders are said to be changing the mix of forces in favor of more combat units and fewer logistical units.
The reinforcements should arrive mid-month, six months before the White House deadline to begin withdrawing U.S. troops. The White House is desperate to show progress in what has become President Barack Obama’s war.
The president made it his own when, in December 2009, he approved a surge of 30,000 more troops and later installed a new overall U.S. commander. At the time, the president approved adding another 3,000 if the situation required, and the additional Marines would seem to fit within those guidelines.
The Marines will be stationed around the key southern city of Kandahar, the one-time Taliban stronghold that U.S.-led forces have steadily cleared. The aim appears twofold: to consolidate gains in advance of Afghan security forces taking over; and to have troops in place in advance of an expected spring Taliban offensive.
June is shaping up as a critical month. By then, commanders should know whether Taliban forces were significantly crippled by the hammering they took last year, or whether they were able to substantially replenish their ranks over the winter in Pakistan.
If the Taliban have substantially regrouped, the president faces a real dilemma. The Pentagon is heavily invested in the new strategy. Liberal Democrats just want us to get out and go home. The administration is divided over its strategy. Republican support is uncertain if there is no demonstrable progress. And even the most optimistic don’t see the Afghan army ready to be responsible for the war until 2014.
Meanwhile, the cost of the Afghan war is mounting rapidly. The U.S. and NATO will spend $11.6 billion this year to build up Afghan security forces. The Washington Post calculates that spending for 2010 and 2011 will be nearly $20 billion, as much as the previous seven years combined.
In this new age of austerity — assuming it lasts — Congress may decide that even if the war is worth fighting, we can’t afford it. Certainly few lawmakers would have the fortitude to raise taxes to pay for it.
Dale McFeatters is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.