Examining Logistics Of Deployment

President Obama has ordered 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan. The plan is to get the forces there by the summer of 2010, a very fast timeline. To make that happen will be a real challenge for the U.S. military — troops and their equipment will have to move halfway around the world to join the fight.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And during that same hearing, senators had one other, practical question: How do we get 30,000 troops to Afghanistan and get them there fast? Well, to talk about that, we're joined by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Tom, the president wants these troops there by the summer. What's the first step to make sure that that happens?

TOM BOWMAN: Well, the first step is identifying which troops you're going to send. And we do know that the Marines will likely be first. We know some of them will be coming from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and others from around the world. A total of 9,000 Marines will be heading over there, mostly to Helmand province. And some of their equipment, we're told, is already afloat, already heading to Afghanistan. And some of the Marines and their equipment should be arriving there in January.

NORRIS: So they got that equipment out right away.

BOWMAN: Exactly.

NORRIS: After the Marines, what happens then?

BOWMAN: Well, we don't know exactly which Army units will be heading over. We're told by officials at the Pentagon, look to the 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, New York, and also the 101st Airborne, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Again, they haven't identified them yet, but we're told in the next week or so, we should know which Army units will be heading over there.

NORRIS: Curious about one thing - does the fact that these are essentially light infantry units make it easier for them to deploy?

BOWMAN: You know, it does make it easier. They don't have to send as many ships over. They don't bring tanks and large armored vehicles like Bradley fighting vehicles. But still, they have some equipment and oftentimes when you send a unit over, they'll fall into equipment of a unit they're replacing. In this case, there will be additional units heading over. There will be new units. So they'll have to bring some equipment with them, Humvees and so forth.

Here's the other thing: We're not sure where they're going to put these troops. There aren't any - there's no infrastructure to put them anywhere. They may have to bring their own tents. So packing is going to be even more of a challenge, bringing a lot more equipment so they can live someplace - out in the desert or in some combat outpost.

NORRIS: And Afghanistan is a country with very rough terrain. How do they get all that equipment into the country?

BOWMAN: Well, some of it they'll have to ship. And they'll start shipping it from the East Coast of the United States. And then they'll ship it to Karachi, Pakistan. And then it's - move it by road. It's a 700-mile trip through quite a - Pakistan to Kandahar and then if they're going to go on to Helmand province, even further away. And once you get into Afghanistan, the road structure isn't all that great. That's one problem.

Now, the other thing is some sensitive equipment - radios and so forth, communications gear - they'll move that to another port in the Middle East and then they'll will fly that stuff in. They don't want to have it moved by road and then have someone grab it. So, look for that to be flown in. But overall, for one brigade, it usually takes about two to three months to move all that stuff.

NORRIS: So they might actually get the troops and the equipment there by summer.

BOWMAN: Well, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked that today by - when he was testifying in Congress. He said they're now looking at the fall to get all those 30,000 troops in, so they're already slipping on their schedule.

NORRIS: Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Will More Troops In Afghanistan Make A Difference?

U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne. i i

U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he inherited as commander in chief. Dario Lopez-Mills/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne.

U.S. Army soldiers walk toward a motor pool Wednesday at Forward Operating Base Airborne in Wardak province, Afghanistan. President Obama ordered an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to the war in Afghanistan, nearly tripling the force he inherited as commander in chief.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP

In his new Afghanistan strategy, President Obama is counting on an accelerated 18-month surge to reverse the Taliban's momentum and make a dent in the spiraling violence.

The most visible portion of the new effort will be the 30,000 additional U.S. troops that will start flowing into Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

But many military experts remain skeptical that the extra soldiers will be enough to change the fundamental dynamics, particularly if Obama sticks to his new July 2011 target for beginning a drawdown.

The new deadline is emerging as the most controversial part of Obama's strategy. The president said the timeframe is aimed at creating a sense of urgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan to act more aggressively.

But critics worry that it sends the wrong signal to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and to U.S. allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Setting a date could allow insurgents to bide their time and take up their offensive after U.S. troops leave.

"Anyone who knows Afghanistan says you might be able to make the beginning of a difference there, but once you start telling people you're out of there, it's going to affect people's behavior," says Eliot Cohen, the director of the strategic studies program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. "That actually incentivizes bad behavior. If you think the Americans are headed out of there, the obvious thing to do is do things in the old Afghan way."

Not Locked Into Leaving

Senior Obama administration officials insist that the pace of withdrawal will be determined by conditions on the ground.

"I do not believe we have locked ourselves into leaving," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a Senate committee hearing Wednesday. "But what we have done ... is to signal very clearly to all audiences that the United States is not interested in occupying Afghanistan."

The plan is designed so that the lead responsibility for security will be handed over gradually to Afghans on a local basis, depending on the quality and reliability of security forces and government institutions.

"In my own mind, July 2011 is a reasonably well-set timeline to get the Afghans to a point where at least in some portions of Afghanistan, we can start withdrawing," retired Lt. Gen James Dubik, who oversaw training of Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008 and spent the past summer observing training of Afghan troops, told NPR's All Things Considered.

Deep Skepticism

But given that U.S. forces have spent the past eight years trying to build up the Afghan army, police and government ministries, there is deep skepticism about how much of a difference another 18 months can make, even with an additional influx of resources.

President Obama addresses the nation i i

President Obama addresses the nation on Afghanistan on Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama addresses the nation

President Obama addresses the nation on Afghanistan on Tuesday at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

"I have no doubt that with 30,000 troops, Gen. McChrystal can put the Taliban on their back foot in 18 months, but those gains will not be sustainable," says Robert Grenier, a former CIA station chief in Pakistan who worked extensively on issues in Afghanistan. "At best, you will make marginal progress in the next 18 months at building up the Afghan national army. That will be a very long project."

The U.S. military plans to accelerate its training efforts by requiring all U.S. combat soldiers to actively partner with Afghan forces in a training capacity.

Senior administration officials say that there are currently 92,000 capable Afghan national army forces, but that too many of them remain garrisoned on bases rather than actively protecting the Afghan people.

McChrystal has said privately that Afghan security forces need to eventually number 400,000 if they are going to be able to secure the entire country. That would include about 260,000 army soldiers and another 140,000 police officers.

Objectives Too Small?

"One of the mistakes the Bush administration made, and I hope we will not make it again, is to set our objectives too small for Afghan security forces," says Cohen, who served as counselor to the State Department for the last two years of the Bush administration. "If you want your real ticket to withdrawal for American combat forces, it's going to be the effective development of Afghan security forces, which will probably have to be paid for by the international community for decades to come. But that's worth it."

Obama's review, however, shied away from endorsing any specific target, with aides saying they prefer to set year-by-year targets that are more achievable. "We are going to take this in bite-size chunks," a senior administration official told reporters.

But there are persistent doubts about whether the training of effective forces can be sped up all that much.

"If push comes to shove, we may be able to recruit enough people on this advanced timeline that you can give them uniforms and boots, and teach them to stand in a straight line, but that's about it," Grenier says. "I'm not even sure they can recruit in sufficient numbers to meet this advanced timeline."

Grenier says the U.S. needs to work more actively with local security forces and tribal militias.

Relying On The Afghans

Until now, Washington has been reluctant to arm and train local militias because officials don't want to undercut the national government in Kabul and further empower local warlords.

In his speech Tuesday night at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Obama did not make any specific reference to local militias. But officials suggested that the administration is open to broader grass-roots security efforts as long as they are somehow tied into government institutions.

"The key here is community security organizations that are willing to work with the government in Kabul and that do not become the militias for warlords," Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress on Wednesday.

But details remain scarce. And some Afghan experts warn that arming militias could end up fueling more of the internecine conflicts that wracked the country for much of the 1980s and 1990s.

"The risk is that we could lose control because we are arming local groups and we know the Afghan army will be weakened by these groups," says Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You will have many groups that are more or less criminal. That could have a short-term result against the Taliban, but it could end up destroying the state in Afghanistan."

In his speech, Obama laid out three broad underpinnings of his strategy. The first is the military push to "break the Taliban's momentum." That includes the surge of 30,000 troops, which will be focused in the troubled southern and eastern regions of the country.

The increase will bring the total number of U.S. troops up to nearly 100,000 by next summer. In addition, some 39,000 NATO and international soldiers are there, and NATO officials expect new commitments of 5,000 additional troops, most of which would be deployed in northern Afghanistan.

They will have their work cut out for them. The Taliban have now achieved a "dominant influence" in 11 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. He also said insurgent attacks this past summer were 60 percent higher than in the same period in 2008.

The second portion is the civilian effort to build up the Afghan government, which has been plagued by corruption and incompetence.

By focusing U.S. aid on areas like agriculture and anti-corruption efforts, Washington hopes to reward the best-run ministries and push out the most corrupt officials. But that will require Afghan President Hamid Karzai to uphold his commitment to clean up his government and fight corruption.

Problems In Pakistan

The third plank involves neighboring Pakistan, which is where al-Qaida still maintains a safe haven and where the limits of U.S. power are felt most clearly.

In public, Obama offered few details on any new initiatives involving Pakistan, other than to offer a long-term partnership. He also praised Pakistan for its recent more aggressive campaigns against extremists inside its borders.

But privately, Obama administration officials were much tougher on Pakistan.

"We are very serious about Pakistan changing its strategic calculus," says a senior administration official. "We want them to realize that association with these extremist groups is not a hedge that is in their long-term interests."

Still, U.S. troops cannot operate openly in Pakistan, meaning U.S. influence is felt most strongly with the controversial strikes by unmanned aircraft targeting extremist hideouts in remote tribal areas.

Obama's strategy does reportedly involve boosting U.S. covert operations in Pakistan, as well as its intelligence sharing with Pakistan's government.

"We have pretty much eliminated al-Qaida from Afghanistan. Obviously we don't want them to come back. The next [step] is to help the Pakistanis get rid of them on their side of the border," James Jones, Obama's national security adviser, told NPR's Morning Edition.

But some experts worry that the new July 2011 deadline could make Pakistan reluctant to boost its cooperation significantly.

"I think they are very skeptical of a surge, particularly a short-term surge," Grenier says. "They think it will only push fighters across the border into Pakistan."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.