Troop Increase in Afghanistan Looks Certain

Washington Matters

Troop Increase in Afghanistan Looks Certain

President Obama will get tacit, albeit largely reluctant, congressional support for an increase in the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. That will come despite declining U.S. public support for the war, criticism that the mission goals need greater clarity and demands for a clear exit strategy.

There are presently 62,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, about double the level a year ago. Obama already added 17,000 troops earlier this year and will decide soon to send anywhere from 10,000 to 45,000 more. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen essentially put lawmakers on notice about it Tuesday, despite opposition from leading Democrats who call it a wrong move and insist that Afghans need to take care of their own country now.

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A White House decision to add troops is expected in a week or two.

Mullen and others say the increase is needed to more effectively combat Taliban insurgents, wash out terrorists havens and stabilize a fragile government in Kabul, especially as other allied countries reduce their own military presence in the country, particularly Canada and Germany.

The increase does not require formal congressional approval (a presidential order will do), and Congress won't contemplate cutting off funding or blocking the decision in any way. At most, there will be votes on nonbinding resolutions stating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan is not open-ended and calling for more assistance from U.S. allies. That will be an easy vote for most everyone.

Republicans will largely support a troop increase. But look for Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and others to call on the administration to set a series of benchmarks to measure success in defeating Taliban insurgents and rooting out al-Qaeda operations and al-Qaeda leadership. The administration will agree, as long as it gets plenty of discretion in how to interpret the benchmarks, which may include a sustained reduction in violence, reducing opium field production and increasing the number of Afghans in supporting roles. Congressional resolutions will be weak by design, with no penalty for missing benchmarks will be spelled out. 

The troop increase will no doubt create more friction with Democrats on the anti-war left, who supported Obama's campaign pledge to end the Iraq war in a timely manner. Obama, in one of his first major decisions as president, agreed with military commanders to increase the troop level in Afghanistan. The timetable for withdrawing most troops in Iraq is by 2011, although it is likely there will be thousands more at the same time in Afghanistan, which is far more difficult terrain than Iraq and where U.S. losses are mounting.

Polling last month shows a majority of Americans have come to see the military mission in Afghanistan as not worth it and the exit strategy far from clear. That will remain the case for weeks unless Obama states the mission and exit strategy more clearly.