KABUL, Afghanistan -- As the Bush administration moves to end 15-month troop deployments, the top commander of U.S. and allied forces here said tours of that length are critical to making progress in the war against Afghanistan's Taliban and other insurgents. He also said he believes it will be necessary to maintain current troop levels here through 2011.
Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, the four-star commander of the 57,000 U.S. and coalition troops fighting in Afghanistan, said in an interview Sunday that the greatest gains in the war have come from soldiers serving the long tours.
"It's not something I advocate we stay on forever," McNeill said. "We've got to ease up on the force a little bit. It's especially an issue for the families."
But he said the most successful units have been U.S. Army troops who have "established relationships with the terrain, with the indigenous people and with the enemy, and have had a good amount of time to exploit those relationships and use them to their advantage."
None of the other 39 troop-contributing nations send their troops for 15 months. Many serve for six months and some as little as four months.
In an hourlong interview at his heavily fortified headquarters in the Afghan capital, McNeill said he believes that current force levels "or higher" will be needed through 2011, and that American military trainers will be required beyond that.
Even with that, he acknowledged that there are not enough troops to hold ground that has been cleared of insurgents.
As a result, he said, U.S. and allied troops are forced to play a version of "whack-a-mole" - offensives that aim to chase and destroy Taliban forces - as insurgents reappear in areas recently swept and declared safe.
According to American experts, the essence of fighting an insurgency, here or in Iraq, is to separate the insurgents from the general population and to provide enough security so that people feel safe, schools and shops can open and government can re-establish itself.
For example, in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have been operating on 15-month tours to provide security, the U.S. foreign aid agency, USAID, has just committed $28 million in an ambitious commercial development enterprise. Jalalabad is a former headquarters of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Elsewhere, especially in southern Afghanistan's Helmand and Kandahar provinces, insurgents have flowed back into towns such as Musa Qala after coalition troops have pulled out.
"But we look back at where we started last year and where we are today, and we think we've done a little better than just whacking a mole," McNeill said
Last week, President Bush directed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to end the 15-month deployment of active-duty Army soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Reducing 15-month deployments was a goal long sought by Army leaders in Washington, who have argued that repeated long tours were overstressing soldiers and families and would cause many experienced soldiers to quit.
In announcing the end of 15-month deployments, Bush cited security gains in Iraq and the continuing withdrawals of the "surge" of reinforcements he sent to Iraq a year ago. Bush did not mention the war in Afghanistan.
In January, McNeill, who is finishing his second 12-month tour in Afghanistan, asked for and received 3,500 Marines as reinforcements.
Of those, one Marine battalion is training Afghan soldiers here. And the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, an air-ground task force of about 2,500 Marines, is poised to launch operations against insurgents in southern Afghanistan.
Both Marine units are on seven-month deployments, normal for the Marine Corps. Asked if he would have preferred troops that could stay 15 months, McNeill said that as a field commander, he sends requests to the Pentagon, which decides what units to send to fill those requests. Choosing specific units is not his decision, he said.
But McNeill emphasized that the 24th MEU is serving as a mobile combat assault force doing a limited amount of classic counterinsurgency operations that would make the most use of a 15-month deployment. He said he expects them to spend more time "advancing against the enemy than building roads and such."
McNeill confirmed a decision announced recently by Gates to send two more combat brigades to Afghanistan in 2009. Under current Pentagon planning, those troops will serve 12-month tours.
McNeill said he recognized the political constraints of some of the allies who are contributing troops despite domestic opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Their reluctance to commit troops on longer deployments is understandable, given their need to maintain a volunteer force, he said.
But, he added, "Some of our other allies who have shorter tour lengths will find it more difficult" to make progress in the war.
"It's not to say they are not practicing counterinsurgency doctrine. They don't have the opportunity to practice it to the fullest extent that U.S. forces do," he said.
McNeill's views were echoed by Lt. Col. Brian Mennes, whose paratroopers of the 1st Battalion, 508th Regiment are just completing a 15-month tour in eastern Afghanistan.
"It took us three or four months just to get oriented," Mennes said last week. "Everywhere we went, people asked us to stay longer."
About the author
David Wood, military affairs correspondent for The Sun, is embedded with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is conducting combat operations in southern Afghanistan into the fall. In the coming weeks, Wood will cover the mission as it unfolds and will also post reports on his blog, Military Watch, at baltimoresun.com/militarywatch.