(Washington, D.C., June 18, 2008) -- With the clock running on his presidency -- and the possibility of a new American president dramatically reducing U.S. military forces in the Middle East come next year -- President Bush is taking no chances. He seems determined to do everything he possibly can to crush al-Qaeda and the Taliban, protect the American people from future terrorist attacks, ensure the security and stability in Afghanistan, and safeguard the embattled government of President Hamid Karzai, the first democratically elected Afghan leader in history. So with the "surge" dramatically boosting security in Iraq, he has directed U.S. military officials to launch a new "surge," this time in Afghanistan.
Over the last few weeks, I've been hearing a lot of chatter from friends and acquaintances in military units and diplomatic positions around the country and around the world who are being readied to head into Afghanistan soon. While the Pentagon is being tight-lipped about specifics, one recent report suggested as many as 7,000 American troops could be headed to the Afghan theater in the next few months. That would represent a dramatic 21% increase from current troop levels, and a stunning 65% increase from spring 2007.
Over the past year, the Pentagon has added more than 8,000 troops to U.S. forces deployed in the country. In April 2007, there were 24,310 U.S. military personnel on the ground. "As of April 1, 2008, according to the Department of Defense (DOD), the United States had 33,000 military personnel deployed in Afghanistan," reports the Congressional Research Service. "Of these, 25,200 were active component personnel and 7,800 were National Guard and Reserves....These totals do not include 23,000 military support personnel in Kuwait, or naval personnel aboard ships patrolling through the Persian Gulf."
"I think that no matter who is elected president, they will want to be successful in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently.
The timing of a new allied offensive in Afghanistan is critical. In recent months, President Karzai has insisted privately to U.S. and NATO officials that more troops were needed to deal with a resurgence of terrorist activity in the country. Then on Friday, Taliban forces pulled off a daring prison break, allowing scores of incredibly dangerous militants -- including numerous would-be suicide bombers -- to escape into the mountains. "Under cover of darkness, nearly all of an estimated 1,150 prisoners, including some 400 Taliban inmates, fled from the jail, two officials in the southern city of Kandahar told Reuters on condition of anonymity." The horrifying incident just underscored the need for stepped up allied operations in the country.
In London on Monday, President Bush thanked British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for agreeing to send more British troops to augment the NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan. "Britain's new deployment of about 230 engineers, logistical staff and military trainers to Afghanistan will boost the number of British forces in the country to more than 8,000, most based in Helmand province in the south," reports the Associated Press. NATO is said to be planning to send upwards of 2,000 total troops soon.
Evidence of the renewed White House focus on securing and rebuilding Afghanistan could be seen in last week's trip by First Lady Laura Bush. "When the Taliban were driven from power in 2001, they left Afghans to build a society from nothing. But working in partnership with the United States and other nations, the Afghan people have made amazing progress," noted the First Lady in a June 12th op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. "Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan's infant-mortality rate has been reduced by almost 25%. Its per capita GDP has increased by 70%. In 2001, only 8% of Afghans had access to basic health care. Today, that number is 85%. In 2001, fewer than a million Afghan children were in school – all of them boys. Today, more than six million Afghan children are in school – about a third of them are girls. On my trip, I saw how these developments are offering Afghans new hope. Yet many hurdles still lie ahead – and my trip was a reminder of those, too. The new schools and roads I visited stood in the shadow of Bamiyan's sandstone cliffs – where two hollow caves are all that remains of Afghanistan's ancient Buddhas, blown up by the Taliban in 2001. Those scars in the cliffsides are a reminder of the danger lurking in the Afghan hills. It's a danger we read about on the front pages, as the Taliban and al Qaeda step up their campaign of suicide bombings and violence. And it is a danger that threatens to erase the progress that Afghans have made. This morning, President Hamid Karzai will present his government's five-year plan for securing that progress. The Afghan National Development Strategy defines how the government will work to improve education and health care, and to address the nation's overwhelming poverty and lack of basic infrastructure. The plan also addresses energy and agriculture needs. Right now, only 12% of Afghans have access to electricity. And an agricultural crisis threatens starvation. Mr. Karzai has urged farmers to grow wheat instead of poppy, so that they and their neighbors will not go hungry. The national strategy is a solid plan to address Afghanistan's many challenges, and it is clear that Afghanistan will also need solid support from its international partners. At today's conference, the United States will pledge $10.2 billion toward the nation's development efforts. This comes on top of the $5.9 billion we committed in 2006 at the donor conference in London. And it means that our commitment of humanitarian, development, and security assistance since 2001 now totals more than $26 billion."
On a curious related note: Senator Barack Obama -- who has been hammered for the past three weeks by Sen. John McCain for being more willing to sit down and negotiate with foreign despots like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korea's Kim Jong Il than U.S. military commanders like General Petraeus -- announced Monday that he will visit Iraq and Afghanistan before the November elections. Sen. Obama has not been to Iraq in more than two years and has not seen any of the results of the "surge" there for himself.