- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The senior U.S. general in Afghanistan said Tuesday he is fighting the war with too few ground troops, and that even the reinforcements President Bush announced last week are insufficient. He said the shortage compels him to use more air power, at the cost of higher civilian casualties.

Speaking just hours after a new U.S. commander took charge in Iraq, Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, told reporters that he realized the only way he would receive the additional ground forces he needs is for Washington to decide to divert them from Iraq.

Mr. McKiernan spoke in an interview with reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who arrived here Tuesday evening after presiding at a ceremony in Baghdad where Gen. Ray Odierno took over for Gen. David Petraeus as the top commander of the 146,000 American troops fighting that war.

Mr. McKiernan said his Washington bosses had “validated” his request for three more ground combat brigades, in addition to the Army brigade that the president announced will deploy to Afghanistan in January instead of going to Iraq.

He said the brigade coming in January will merely fill an immediate need for more help in eastern Afghanistan and cited a need for at least 10,000 additional ground troops, beyond the 3,700 due early next year.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are headed in opposite directions: violence is down substantially in Iraq and U.S. troop levels are declining, whereas the fighting is heating up in Afghanistan and more U.S. troops are needed. It will fall to the next U.S. president to decide how to balance resources on both fronts.

Mr. McKiernan said he believed it was a question of when, not whether, he would get the troops he has requested.

“It’s a question of political decisions to be made to divert capabilities from Iraq to Afghanistan,” he said.

He disputed the notion that the U.S. and NATO war strategy has failed and needs to be overhauled.

“Our strategy of approaching counterinsurgency operations is a valid strategy here,” Mr. McKeirnan said. “Our problem is we don’t have enough resources to do it with.” The general added that he was referring not only to insufficient military forces but also shortcomings in Afghan governance and a shortage of international economic aid.

Bush said in making his troop announcement last week that there was under way a “quiet surge” of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but Mr. McKiernan said he preferred not to think of the reinforcements as a surge because that would imply that the additional military power was being employed temporarily. He said he needs extra combat power, in addition to non-military resources, that can be counted on for the long term.

“We don’t have sufficient forces here, so there is a greater reliance on air” power against insurgent targets, he said.

Mr. McKiernan may get more ground forces from Iraq, where the U.S. combat role has been shrinking.

At the change-of-command ceremony in Baghdad, Mr. Gates said Iraq had undergone a remarkable turnaround from early 2007, when Mr. Petraeus arrived in a country that was on the brink of all-out civil war.

“Darkness had descended on this land,” Mr. Gates said. “Merchants of chaos were gaining strength. Death was commonplace,” and people around the world were wondering whether any Iraq strategy would work.

“Slowly, but inexorably, the tide began to turn,” Mr. Gates said. “Our enemies took a fearsome beating they will not soon forget. Fortified by our own people and renewed commitment, the soldiers of Iraq found new courage and confidence. And the people of Iraq, resilient and emboldened, rose up to take back their country.”

In the interview Tuesday evening, Mr. McKiernan said he could not predict how long it would take to achieve success in Afghanistan.

There currently are about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Mr. McKiernan was asked what the consequence would be of not getting the three combat brigades he believes are needed in 2009 beyond the one Bush is sending in January.

“The danger is that we’ll be here longer and we’ll expend more resources and experience more human suffering than if we had more resources placed against this campaign sooner,” he said.

More U.S. forces have been killed in Afghanistan so far this year than in all of 2007 as a resurgent Taliban-led insurgency has adopted bolder and often deadlier tactics.

Mr. McKiernan said he had no doubt that the insurgency could not win in Afghanistan, but he did not say U.S. forces are assured of victory, either.

“We are not losing, but we are winning slower in some places than others,” he said.

In the interview, Mr. McKiernan also disclosed that he recently issued a revised order meant to govern the tactics and procedures followed by U.S. forces when engaging in air and ground fights against the insurgents. The revision, issued Sept. 2, was in response to a series of attacks that resulted in civilian deaths most notably the highly publicized allegations that a U.S. attack on an Afghan village compound on Aug. 22 killed as many as 90 Afghan civilians, including women and children. The U.S. military has disputed the allegation but also has launched a new investigation in light of emerging evidence.

Mr. McKiernan said 90 percent of his new directive is meant to re-emphasize existing procedures.

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