Support Troops Swelling U.S. Force in Afghanistan
Additional Deployments Not Announced and Rarely Noted
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
President Obama announced in March that he would be sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. But in an unannounced move, the White House has also authorized -- and the Pentagon is deploying -- at least 13,000 troops beyond that number, according to defense officials.
The additional troops are primarily support forces, including engineers, medical personnel, intelligence experts and military police. Their deployment has received little mention by officials at the Pentagon and the White House, who have spoken more publicly about the combat troops who have been sent to Afghanistan.
The deployment of the support troops to Afghanistan brings the total increase approved by Obama to 34,000. The buildup has raised the number of U.S. troops deployed to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan above the peak during the Iraq "surge" that President George W. Bush ordered, officials said.
The deployment does not change the maximum number of service members expected to soon be in Afghanistan: 68,000, more than double the number there when Bush left office. Still, it suggests that a significant number of support troops, in addition to combat forces, would be needed to meet commanders' demands. It also underscores the growing strain on U.S. ground troops, raising practical questions about how the Army and Marine Corps would meet a request from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.
Defense experts said the military usually requires that thousands of support troops deploy for each combat brigade of about 4,000. That, in turn, exacerbates the strain on the force, in part because support troops are some of the most heavily demanded in the military and are still needed in large numbers in Iraq.
"There are admittedly some challenges over the next 10 to 12 months as we are downsizing in Iraq, and therefore any schedule for increasing in Afghanistan might have to be more gradual," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Pentagon and White House officials have not publicized significant deployments of support troops. For example, when Bush announced the Iraq surge, he spoke only of 20,000 combat troops and did not mention the approximately 8,000 support troops that would accompany them. When Gen. David H. Petraeus announced that the surge would end, he spoke only of the withdrawal of the combat units because he needed to retain many of the support troops in Iraq.
On Afghanistan, White House and Pentagon spokesmen differed over exactly what the president has approved.
Obama announced in a March 27 speech that he was approving 21,000 troops, and a White House spokesman said that the president did not approve any other increases before or after. Asked for more details on the troop authorizations, spokesman Tommy Vietor said the Pentagon was better suited to provide such "technical information."
Defense officials, however, acknowledge that the request for 21,000 troops has led to the authorization of more forces.
"The 21,000 are only combat forces, and when the combat forces go in, there are a certain amount of additional forces that are required," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who signs the deployment orders, had military officials identify last spring the entire scope of the increase and agreed that he would consult with Obama again if the Pentagon sought to go above that, Whitman said.
"Obama authorized the whole thing. The only thing you saw announced in a press release was the 21,000," said another defense official familiar with the troop-approval process.
McChrystal's request, which the administration is considering, would be in addition to the troops Obama has approved. The request reportedly includes different options for adding troops for combat, training and support, with one option totaling about 40,000. The ability of the Army and Marine Corps to meet the request would depend on the type and number of troops McChrystal asked for, and when he wants them. A significant troop increase in Afghanistan early next year -- similar to the 2007 increase in Iraq -- would be difficult to sustain given the current size of the Army and Marine Corps and ongoing troop demands in Iraq, officials said.
The Army has 17 brigades deployed worldwide, including 11 in Iraq and five in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon data. The Marine Corps has one expeditionary brigade in Afghanistan. As of early this month, 65,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and about 124,000 were in Iraq. At the height of the increase in Iraq, in late 2007 and early 2008, about 160,000 U.S. troops were in Iraq and 26,000 were in Afghanistan.
Senior Army officials have made it clear that they want to avoid further wearying the force by imposing longer war zone tours or shortening time at home -- as happened during the Iraq troop increase when the Army extended one-year deployments to 15 months.
"I would hope we don't get there," Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, told reporters last week before meeting with Obama to provide his advice. Still, Casey said he could not promise that Army units would not face extended tours.
"Once you come off a 15-month [rotation requirement], you don't want to go right back on it," said Lt. Gen. James D. Thurman, the Army's operations chief.
Army officials said that for planning purposes they are looking at various options for meeting the request for forces, including those that both maintain and break the Army's "red lines" requiring no more than 12 months deployed and no less than 12 months at home.
To give soldiers more time at home, the goal would be to deploy first those units that have been home the longest.
Other factors would affect the Army's ability to meet McChrystal's request. One variable involves the types of forces used, which differ between Afghanistan and Iraq.
So far, the Army has tried to deploy mostly light and airborne infantry to Afghanistan because of the country's rural, mountainous terrain and the nature of the insurgency there. To maintain continuity, the Army seeks to keep deploying such units because of their experience in Afghanistan. In July, the Army deployed the first Stryker brigade to Afghanistan, to provide greater mobility and firepower to the force, and more may be sent.
A significant troop increase, however, could require the Army to send mechanized and armored brigades to Afghanistan, although they would have to deploy with lighter vehicles.
Recent growth in U.S. ground forces, ordered by Gates in 2007, has helped make the troop buildup in Afghanistan possible by permanently expanding the Army and Marine Corps. This summer, Gates ordered another temporary increase of 22,000 soldiers to fill out gaps in Army units created by the growing number of wounded and other "non-deployable" troops.
Gates last month ordered to Afghanistan up to 3,000 support troops, and he could seek approval to send more to meet urgent needs. "I'm prepared to ask for the flexibility to send more enablers if we need to before the president makes a decision on -- on whether or not to send significant additional combat troops," he said, using the term "enablers" to refer to support troops as opposed to combat units.
Casey and other senior Army officials said the Army will keep pursuing its goal of giving active-duty soldiers two years at home between year-long deployments by 2011.
"An increase in dwell time is the single most important thing we can do to relieve stress on the force," said Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff, using the military term for at-home rest.