The Obama administration is preparing to rush fresh troops to Afghanistan but lacks a clear strategy for using them, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates acknowledged before a congressional panel yesterday.
The Pentagon is ready to send two combat brigades of about 7,000 troops to Afghanistan this spring, and another brigade could be deployed by midsummer, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan," he said, adding that Islamist extremists have "largely" turned their attention from Iraq to Afghanistan. Defeating them and helping to stabilize the country "will be a long and difficult fight," he predicted.
But Gates also acknowledged that after more than seven years of war, the Pentagon doesn't have a coherent military-civil strategy for Afghanistan as it did in Iraq, where Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker forged a unified campaign that coordinated tactical military maneuvers with political pressure and economic development.
That was relatively easy, he said, because the United States dominated the intervention force.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. participates with some 40 countries, the U.N., the European Union, NATO and hundreds of private relief agencies.
"Figuring out how to coordinate all that ... is a very complex business," he said.
The search for an Afghan strategy has been under way for months. A lengthy White House review was completed in the final weeks of the Bush administration. Parallel studies are in progress by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by Petraeus and his staff at U.S. Central Command, and by the new White House national security staff.
Without a guiding strategy, top commanders and senior civilian officials are in disagreement over what missions the additional troops should be assigned, and how those missions could be coordinated with political and economic development efforts. Senior officials say the studies are not yet completed.
Troops deployed in Afghanistan have expressed confusion about whether their ultimate goal is to eliminate the Taliban or help Afghanistan become a viable democracy. U.S. officials say military objectives often undercut development work, and aid agencies frequently complicate military tactics.
"We need a fully integrated civilian-military strategy," Gates said yesterday, and to set "modest, realistic goals."
Obama is expected to meet with the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon this week to hash out timetables for withdrawing troops from Iraq and deploying more troops to Afghanistan.
Among those uncomfortable with sending more troops without a clear strategy is Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who waged an unsuccessful battle for the presidency last year. In addition to having a "clear strategy," McCain said, the United States needs to tackle Afghanistan's narcotics trade and official corruption.
Gates agreed that corruption, much of it fueled by drug profits, "reaches into the high levels of the [Afghan] government."
Fighting the narcotics trade, which provides the Taliban with about $400 million a year, is primarily the responsibility of the Afghan government, U.S. officials have said. But skeptics note that Kabul's weak security forces and its own corruption make effective action unlikely.
Gates, asked directly whether he believes the Afghan government will move aggressively against the drug lords anytime soon, replied: "I doubt it."