Afghanistan and some unmentioned strategic risks
Left unmentioned in all the discussion of America's interests in Afghanistan are several risks that Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for 40,000 additional soldiers, if implemented, would create. McChrystal is asking for a permanent escalation in Afghanistan that would commit U.S. ground forces to a larger open-ended effort. Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, fears that the size and duration of this commitment could eventually break the all-volunteer Army. One strategic risk is that the United States would not have enough ready ground forces for another sustained contingency elsewhere. Finally, the funding that is diverted to sustaining ground-force intensive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan could be creating risks in the space, air, and naval dimensions that will unpleasantly appear in the next decade and beyond.
The Bush administration's surge in Iraq was a strategic gamble. The increase from 15 to 20 brigades in Iraq tapped out the last of America's ground combat power. In addition, the required deployment schedule -- 15 months in combat followed by 12 months back home -- was considered a temporary, emergency measure. It was for this reason that the Iraq "surge" was a temporary measure -- it was not feasible to indefinitely sustain 20 brigades in Iraq.
In these terms, McChrystal's troop request is not a surge but an escalation. McChrystal's initial assessment does not define a discrete time period during which he would need the additional troops -- the request is open-ended.
In May, prior to the Obama administration's latest review of Afghan policy and McChrystal's report, Casey declared the current deployment practice of "12 months deployed, 12 months home" unsustainable. The Army now considers a routine of 12 months deployed, 24 months home sustainable in the long run. The Army believes it can implement this routine if it limits its commitment to Afghanistan and Iraq to no more than 10 brigades.
But according to this open-source estimate of the current U.S. order of battle in Afghanistan, one Marine and six Army brigades are currently serving in Afghanistan. These seven brigades are part of the 68,000 U.S. troops in the country. McChrystal's 40,000-soldier increase would bring the U.S. brigade count in Afghanistan to at least 11 and probably more.
Assuming the U.S. really does evacuate all of its troops from Iraq by the end of 2011, the Army and the Marine Corps would find a way to sustain the larger effort in Afghanistan while also increasing home-station time -- assuming that this would be McChrystal's final escalation of the war.
But the other strategic risks would remain. U.S. ground combat power would be unavailable for another sustained effort elsewhere, unless force generation planners were again willing to risk reducing home-station time down toward 12 months. Casey wants to stop this gamble on the Army's future.
Second, McChrystal's open-ended commitment to Afghanistan would mean that ground-force operations, paid for with either regular or supplemental budgets, would continue to divert funds away from space, air, and naval modernization. Given the very long leads times involved with these programs (along with some deteriorating trends I mentioned last week), President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates should ponder what strategic legacy they will leave to their successors and how that measures up to the current effort in Afghanistan.