Afghanistan Troop Lev­el to Eclipse Iraq by Midyear

By John J. Kruzel
Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2010 — This sum­mer will mark the first time since 2003 that the num­ber of U.S. troops in Afghanistan will over­shad­ow the Amer­i­can pres­ence in Iraq, the top U.S. mil­i­tary offi­cer told Con­gress today.
Dri­ving the eclipse is the 30,000-troop surge Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma announced for Afghanistan in Decem­ber, rough­ly a third of which is in place, and with 18,000 of the addi­tion­al forces expect­ed to be in Afghanistan by late spring as troop lev­els in Iraq con­tin­ue to drop.

“Indeed, by the mid­dle of this year, Afghanistan will sur­pass Iraq, for the first time since 2003, as the loca­tion with the most deployed Amer­i­can forces,” said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mullen told mem­bers of the House Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee the remain­der of the 30,000 will arrive as rapid­ly as pos­si­ble over the sum­mer and ear­ly fall, mak­ing a major con­tri­bu­tion to revers­ing Tal­iban momen­tum in 2010.

Mean­while, the num­ber of U.S. forces in Iraq is set to fall to 50,000 by Sept. 1, in accor­dance with an agree­ment between Wash­ing­ton and Bagh­dad. Some 97,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq now, com­pared to 83,000 Amer­i­can and 45,000 allied forces in Afghanistan, defense offi­cials said.

In Afghanistan, the bat­tle last month that rout­ed the Tal­iban from its for­mer strong­hold in Mar­ja was cast as an ear­ly test of the strat­e­gy that includes increas­ing the num­ber of Amer­i­can and allied troops in NATO’s Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force and ramp­ing up oper­a­tions against mil­i­tants in the south­ern and east­ern parts of Afghanistan.

For months before the oper­a­tion in the cen­tral region of Hel­mand province, U.S. and NATO mil­i­tary offi­cials not­ed the strate­gic impor­tance of the south­ern Afghanistan area and the goal to clear the area of Tal­iban fight­ers. The ratio­nale for such a dec­la­ra­tion of intent before the Mar­ja offen­sive was to allow low-lev­el Tal­iban fight­ers the chance to flee and to warn civil­ians of the impend­ing attack, offi­cials said. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, com­man­der of U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand, called Mar­ja the “ini­tial sal­vo” in a cam­paign that could last 12 to 18 months.

Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates, appear­ing along­side Mullen at today’s hear­ing, said “shap­ing” that took place ahead of the bat­tle was a key to help­ing troops move beyond the ini­tial phase of the oper­a­tion.

“A big part of the focus was on both our own civil­ian capac­i­ty and that of the Afghan gov­ern­ment, to come in behind our troops in the hold and build phas­es of the oper­a­tion,” he said.

Mullen, who ear­li­er this month said the focus would shift to Kan­da­har after Mar­ja, told Con­gress the “hold” phase in Mar­ja still is nascent, but that the plan to imple­ment gov­er­nance fol­low­ing the bat­tle has been suc­cess­ful.

“I know [Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai] has vis­it­ed that area and has cer­tain­ly heard the local peo­ple from Mar­ja and what they need from their gov­ern­ment,” the chair­man said. “And we know that that’s a very crit­i­cal part of the long-term suc­cess here.”

In Iraq, mean­while, offi­cials con­tin­ue tal­ly­ing the results of a par­lia­men­tary elec­tion that took place ear­li­er this month. Despite a rel­a­tive­ly mild inci­dence of vio­lence, no polling sta­tions were forced to close.

An esti­mat­ed 12 mil­lion Iraqis, about 62 per­cent of the elec­torate, cast votes in the March 7 elec­tion that will appoint par­lia­men­tary seats and pos­si­bly a new prime min­is­ter, pend­ing results. Gates told Con­gress today that the turnout was a cause for opti­mism, not­ing a video tele­con­fer­ence he had with Army Gen. Ray­mond T. Odier­no, com­man­der of U.S. forces in Iraq, before the elec­tion. “He said if we get 50 to 55 per­cent turnout, that will be great,” the sec­re­tary said. “If we get 55 to 60 per­cent — that would be excep­tion­al.

“We end­ed up with 62 per­cent turnout,” Gates con­tin­ued. “The Iraqis are try­ing to solve their prob­lems polit­i­cal­ly instead of shoot­ing at each oth­er. And frankly, I think we’re mod­est­ly opti­mistic that this thing is going to go for­ward with­out any need for chang­ing the plans.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)