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The No. 1 reason cited by Pentagon officials and military specialists is the vast tribal region of Pakistan - a generally ungoverned expanse of 3 million people where the ousted Taliban and al Qaeda operatives are relatively free to recruit, train and infiltrate neighboring Afghanistan.

“We’re seeing a greater number of insurgents and foreign fighters flowing across the border with Pakistan, unmolested and unhindered,” an exasperated Adm. Mullen told reporters recently. “This movement needs to stop.”

He added, “I talked with all our leaders there, and they all indicated that, you know, they need more troops.”

However, two veterans of the Afghanistan war said more conventional forces are part of the problem.

An Army Green Beret who spent time in Afghanistan training Afghans said too many conventional forces already are being sent there.

“The war in Afghanistan is irregular warfare,” said the officer, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press. “This requires unconventional forces. As soon as conventional forces greatly outnumber Special Forces in theater, resources are diverted to conventional forces that have the greater need per capita.”

A former senior commander in Afghanistan said U.S. policy went wrong when it veered away from the original plan of using special operations forces, CIA operatives and economic aid to empower anti-Taliban Afghans to fight the enemy themselves.

“They are the ones who know where they are coming over from Pakistan,” said the former commander, who asked not to be named because he now works for a U.S. defense firm that does business in the Middle East.

He said that before the October 2001 invasion, U.S. Central Command conducted a study of why foreign invaders failed in Afghanistan. The answer: They poured in too many troops, creating ample targets for hit-and-run insurgents.

“If I were doing it, I would go back to the way we were doing it originally,” the former commander said. “I think we have way too many troops.”

Pentagon officials declined to comment about the long-term risks of increasing the foreign military presence in Afghanistan. “We feel this is best asked of and answered by the democratically elected government of Afghanistan,” said Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman.

The total foreign troop commitment in Afghanistan has gone from several hundred at the war’s start to 10,000 in 2003 to 52,000 today, more than half of them American.

Critics of the Iraq war and the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terrorism also caution that a long-term troop surge in Afghanistan could backfire.

Richard Holbrooke, a top State Department official and ambassador to the United Nations under President Clinton, said he supported an infusion of troops into southern and eastern Afghanistan to deal with the immediate Taliban threat.

“But I would not like to see us take over this war,” Mr. Holbrooke said, because it would retard the development of Afghanistan’s own security forces and spark a hostile reaction among ordinary Afghans.

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