Nagl: Afghanistan Strains Already-Strapped Army

John Nagl, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army and president of the Center for a New American Security, speaks with Steve Inskeep about the status of U.S. forces. Nagl says the military is already under strain as the president weighs whether to send more troops to Afghanistan.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The United States army is waiting to find if it faces a larger commitment in Afghanistan. If President Obama sends more troops, they would have to come from a U.S. army under strain. That's the view of John Nagl, an Iraq war veteran who wrote an influential book on counterinsurgency. The retired military officer is now president of the Center for a New American Security.

Suppose the president did want to send a substantial number of American troops to Afghanistan. What's available?

Dr. JOHN NAGL (President, Center for a New American Security): The Army is under strain, and I think that it's important that we start with that understanding. We surged five brigades to Iraq not much more than two years ago. And it's only been about year since the last of those brigades has returned home to the United States. So those brigades are still recovering, and the Army really thought it was going to get to take a knee after Iraq, that it was going to be able to draw down there, not ramp up so appreciably in Afghanistan. This requirement for increased troop strength in Afghanistan is doable, but it's going to put additional strain on an Army that's already feeling a lot of pain.

INSKEEP: Let me make sure I understand that, because there's something more than 100,000 troops in Iraq. I get that. There's a lot. There's heading up towards 68,000 now in Afghanistan. That's a lot. But you've got an Army that's getting in the neighborhood of half a million. Why would there be strain from those numbers?

Dr. NAGL: The active duty Army is actually appreciably more than half a million. It's north of 550,000, but you can't deploy all of your Army at the same time when you're in an extended conflict. And what we're trying to do is give every soldier two years at home between deployments. We're not able to do that right now. We're not much more than one year between deployments. And the Army was hoping to be able to extend that period, to start stretching out to 18 months or two years between deployments to give soldiers a chance to be home with their families.

And one of the recurring complaints, lamentations I hear from the young officers that I know is that they don't have time between deployments to even get a relationship started. So some of these great young people after two, three combat tours, they love the Army, they love what they're doing, but they're getting out just so that they can have the time to start a family.

INSKEEP: And if you're going to keep an all-volunteer Army, you have to think about these things.

Dr. NAGL: You've got to give enough of a break, enough quality of life to enable these young people to understand that the Army is a sustainable career, that it's not going to be year deployed, year at home. So we've got to, I think, increase the size of the Army if we're going to continue to ask this much of our young men and women.

INSKEEP: With that said, though, there is an expectation that troop levels in Iraq are going to decrease over the coming months. Does that create some room to shift people over to Afghanistan?

Dr. NAGL: It does, but while we surged in Iraq, we had a temporary increase in strength and we're now drawing down off of that and we - it looks like are going to be able to continue to draw down in Iraq. We're not looking for a temporary bump up in Afghanistan for just a year. We need to be prepared to whatever troop level we increase to in Afghanistan in 2010, we need to be prepared to hold that level for two or three years. If we're going to do this, if we're going to commit to a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan that's properly resourced, it's going to put strain on the ground forces for the next three years, at least.

INSKEEP: So granting that any extra deployment would be some kind of strain, what's a number of troops you could send to Afghanistan and at least not be too unreasonable in the strain that you add onto the Army?

Dr. NAGL: The back-of-the-envelop calculations I've done suggest that about 25,000 or 30,000 troops is about all the Army would be able to support. The Marines can probably support with another 5,000 or 10,000 Marines, as well. So we can probably find 40,000, but that's really going to be a stretch.

INSKEEP: How long would it take, if the president were to so order, how long would it take to get them in position in Afghanistan and up to that level consistently?

Dr. NAGL: I think that effort would take most of 2010. The effort to train those forces before we deploy them is going to take months. A lot of these units are obviously not yet on deployment orders.

If we're sending them over as trainers, we're going to have to reconfigure some of their forces, give them some special training. We're going to have to give them Dari and Pashtun language training.

And we're also facing the incredibly difficult logistical challenges of just getting soldiers and equipment into Afghanistan. A lot of it has to go by road through the Khyber Pass from Pakistan. Those roads are very, very full. They're threatened by insurgents right now. So it's going to take at least until the summer of 2010 to get all of those forces on the ground and working.

INSKEEP: John Nagl, thanks very much.

Dr. NAGL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: John Nagl of the Center for New American Security is author of a book on counterinsurgency called "Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife."

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