The Pentagon has started paring U.S. forces in Afghanistan, even before President Barack Obama decides on the full size of the promised reduction, by re-routing 800 soldiers that were in training for the conflict.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, Obama’s top military adviser, said yesterday that they approved a recommendation from Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and coalition commander in Afghanistan, to go without two battalions that were due to arrive in the war zone after July 1.
The forces are being diverted as the U.S. considers how much to cut troop strength in Afghanistan to meet the president’s December 2009 pledge of starting to reduce the U.S. presence there next month. Obama is under pressure from his own Democrats and some Republicans for a sizable cut in the almost 100,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, fighting alongside 47,000 from other countries in the NATO-led coalition.
The rerouted soldiers will head to Kuwait to help with the remaining 48,000-strong U.S. training and support mission in neighboring Iraq.
“As General Petraeus was looking across Afghanistan and beginning to identify different options, it was pretty clear that these two units were units that would probably be on that list,” Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. “The decision was made here, aware clearly of the president’s direction of what would begin in July, quite frankly to look out for the interests of those troops.”
It was the last scheduled media briefing for Gates, who leaves office at the end of the month and has pressed for keeping as many forces as possible in Afghanistan to solidify the gains achieved by a 30,000-troop increase last year.
“I believe we are being successful in implementing the president’s strategy,” Gates said.
Military operations are denying the Taliban control of populated areas, degrading their capabilities and reversing their momentum, he said. The Taliban harbored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan before the U.S. ousted them from power in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
The coalition also is increasing the size and strength of the Afghan security forces so they can take the lead in providing security by the target of 2014, Gates said.
Obama’s support of two troop increases since he came to office and a military campaign plan that suggests a gradual drawdown indicate that the force cut “won’t be that big,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a military strategy and defense analyst at the Brookings Institution policy group in Washington. He said that during his seventh visit to Afghanistan, in May, he saw improvement for the first time.
“On the ground, the plan is really starting to work pretty well,” O’Hanlon told a forum in Washington yesterday. One sign was that Afghan officials in the south, considered the Taliban’s heartland, are able to travel by car rather than requiring helicopters for security, as in the past, he said.
“Throughout the entire Helmand River valley, the place is fundamentally safer and more open for business than it had been before,” he said, cautioning that it’s “still hugely problematic.”
U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, had raised concerns about the diversion of the two battalions when he visited the National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team earlier this month. The brigade was in the process of deploying from Camp Shelby in Mississippi, according to a June 13 statement on Inhofe’s website.
Conditions on Ground
The re-routing was “troubling to me, because any drawdown must be based on conditions on the ground,” Inhofe said in the statement. “Last minute re-taskings unnecessarily increase risk.”
Inhofe said he feared that major changes in the U.S. mission in Afghanistan could turn around the “fragile and reversible” progress made against Taliban forces in the past year. Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that the military had considered the situation in concluding that the move could be made.
“They were in a good position for us to make a decision about whether they should be diverted or not, based on the conditions on the ground,” Mullen said. “More than anything else, it was to try to take care of them, not get them headed in one direction and then have to” pull them back out immediately.
Obama met with Petraeus and other national security advisers June 15 at the White House to review the issues involved in any withdrawal, White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday.
Range of Options
“They discussed a range of options,” Carney said at a briefing. “The general has said in the past publicly that this was a question of options, plural, and not option, and that conversation will continue.” Obama has nominated Petraeus to be the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Al-Qaeda’s announcement yesterday of its new leader demonstrates that the group hasn’t been eliminated as a threat, Gates and Mullen said. Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant before the leader was killed in a U.S. raid last month in Pakistan, will take over, the terrorist group said in a statement posted on a website it frequently uses.
Mullen said he wasn’t surprised at Zawahiri’s appointment.
“He and his organization still threaten us,” Mullen said.
Gates said that while war fatigue and concerns over the costs of the conflict weigh “heavily on all of us,” the U.S. should aim for success.
The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will drop by $40 billion in the year starting Oct. 1, to less than $120 billion from $160 billion this year, Gates said.
“There’s every reason to believe” that the following year bodes “another significant reduction,” he said.
“I understand the concern, and especially in hard economic times,” Gates said. “We also have to think about the long-term interests, security interests, of our country.”