WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration and Congress begin a heated debate about how many more American troops to send to Afghanistan, military observers, soldiers on the ground there and some top Pentagon officials are warning that dispatching even tens of thousands more soldiers and Marines might not ensure success.
Some even fear that deploying more U.S. troops, especially in the wake of a U.S. airstrike last week that killed and wounded scores of Afghan civilians, would convince more Afghans that the Americans are occupiers rather than allies and relieve the pressure on the Afghan government to improve its own security forces.
The heart of the problem, soldiers in Afghanistan and some officials in Washington told McClatchy, is that neither Barack Obama's White House nor the Pentagon has clearly defined America's mission in Afghanistan. As a result, some soldiers in the field said, they aren't sure what their objectives are.
Current officials and military officers who are wary of escalation refused to speak on the record because they aren't authorized to talk to the media and because doing so would be hazardous to their careers.
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The administration's stated goals in Afghanistan have ranged from eliminating the threat posed by al-Qaida — which is based in neighboring Pakistan, not in Afghanistan — and building a stable democratic state, depending on what administration official is speaking and when.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates attempted to define the administration's strategy. He said that before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Taliban not only provided al-Qaida refuge but "cooperated and collaborated" with the terrorist group. Because of that, he said, the United States must ensure that a stable government exists in Afghanistan so the Taliban — and ultimately al-Qaida — can't return.
The situation in Afghanistan, including last month's still-inconclusive election and a review by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, have made it hard for the president to speak out more definitively, said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the center-left Brookings Institution who was in Afghanistan for the August election.
Obama must do so soon, however, O'Hanlon said: "He can't expect the country to continue to tolerate a mission that he himself has not explained."
Obama might explain it soon, although the timing and format haven't been decided, administration officials said.
Although recent polls have found public support for the war in Afghanistan ebbing, aides said the president is committed to the effort but aware of the need to avoid wading into a quagmire.
"Momentum is a terrible way to make decisions," said a senior White House official who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Obama will avoid decisions that "will bind the country forever," he said.
The White House is due to send a series of benchmarks for measuring progress in Afghanistan to Congress by Sept. 24, where support for the effort is eroding among liberal Democrats and even some conservatives.
Officials, however, concede that no amount of additional American force can by itself ensure success.
Even the limited goal of eradicating al-Qaida requires substantially more cooperation from Pakistan than the country has provided so far — or than U.S. military and intelligence officials and diplomats privately say they expect amid mounting anti-Americanism there.
Critics worry that a likely middle course — sending more American troops to train and expand the Afghan security forces — can't assure success, either, because those forces are controlled by a government that's riddled with corruption and more feared than respected by its people. Widespread allegations of fraud in last month's presidential election have only compounded the problem, officials conceded.
Despite the Obama administration's decision to send 17,500 more troops and 4,000 trainers in this year, violence is at its highest level of the eight-year war. Attacks against coalition forces are at their highest, too, with at least 308 troops killed in 2009, which last month became the deadliest year of the war.
Military leaders and some in the administration and Congress concede that the situation is deteriorating and that the options aren't appealing. However, they argue, doing nothing would be worse.
Officials who have read McChrystal's assessment say it doesn't ask for more troops directly. That request is expected this month.
However, they said, the U.S. commander spells out a dire scenario that all but says he needs more troops. The Afghan forces need more training, the assessment says, without saying how many; the mission needs more civilians; and the coalition needs to move its forces out of remote outposts and toward population centers.
The request could be for as many as 45,000 troops; a compromise would send about 21,000 more. There are now 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The addition of more troops, some U.S. experts and officers said, will mean more targets for the Taliban to attack. That in turn probably will produce more civilian casualties, which would fuel greater disdain for the U.S.-led military presence and the Kabul government, creating more recruits for the insurgents.
The additional U.S. and allied casualties also would produce political consequences in Washington and other NATO capitals, which already face rising popular opposition to the war. Those tensions in turn could further strain the already troubled trans-Atlantic alliance.