WASHINGTON Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain and President George W. Bush all agree on one thing -- more U.S. troops should go to Afghanistan. But would they make much difference?
Many experts believe a boost in combat troops would help check worsening insurgent violence. Some are not convinced more troops are the answer and all believe that the problems facing Afghanistan require much more than military solutions.
A big increase in the number of Afghan soldiers and police, many more foreign trainers to teach them, plus renewed efforts to tackle corruption and the opium trade are among the prescriptions offered by analysts to stabilize the country.
"I think troop numbers are one of several key factors," said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the Rand Corporation research group.
Obama, who visited Afghanistan over the weekend, has promised to send at least two brigades -- probably around 7,000 troops. The Democratic senator from Illinois has pledged to send them quickly as he would make Afghanistan a priority ahead of Iraq.
McCain has said commanders should get the three brigades they have requested. But the Republican Arizona senator backs Bush's policy that Iraq has priority, so the stretched U.S. military could take longer to get his additional forces to Afghanistan.
Bush has pledged an unspecified number of extra troops for Afghanistan who would likely arrive only after he has left office -- although Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week he wanted to forces there "sooner rather than later."
The increased political attention to Afghanistan reflects widespread Western concern over rising violence, which is at its highest levels since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
With more international troops dying in May and June in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where violence is declining, American public attention has turned back to what was sometimes termed the "forgotten war."
Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University said the 53,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan clearly needed reinforcements.
"The argument is still very compelling that a substantial increase in NATO forces will make a very big difference there," said Kay, a NATO expert.
Taliban and other fighters have been able to return to areas they abandoned in southern and eastern Afghanistan -- the heartlands of the insurgency -- because there are not enough troops to keep those places secure, analysts say.
"You've got to provide security in the southern and eastern parts and that's just not happening," Kay said.
In addition to the NATO force, there are some 19,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan performing a range of other missions from counterterrorism to police training plus 63,000 Afghan soldiers and 79,000 Afghan police officers, U.S. officials say.
That makes a total of some 214,000 foreign and Afghan security personnel.
But questions have been raised about the effectiveness of many of those forces. The police, in particular, are frequently accused of incompetence and corruption while some NATO nations do not allow their troops to take part in combat missions.
In Iraq, the United States has around 147,000 troops. There are also some 170,000 Iraqi troops and 365,000 Iraqi police officers.
DRAFT FOR AFGHANISTAN?
The precise number of troops that may be required to turn the tide in Afghanistan is the subject of some debate.
Jones said he was not convinced many of the figures being thrown around now were based on much rigorous analysis.
Gen. Dan McNeill, a previous commander of the NATO force, has said more than 300,000 security personnel would be required to fight an insurgency in a nation of Afghanistan's size and population, according to formulas used in the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual.
John Nagl, a leading U.S. counterinsurgency expert, said about 150,000 more personnel were needed to fight the insurgency. But he said a large number of those should be Afghans and suggested Afghanistan should institute a draft.
"It was good enough for the United States up until 1973," said Nagl, an author and former U.S. Army battalion commander now at the Center for a New American Security think tank.
"How can it not be good enough for the fifth poorest country in the world which is afflicted by a difficult insurgency?"
Many counterinsurgency experts argue that working with local forces is the key to defeating any insurgency.
Carter Malkasian, an analyst at the CNA research group who has advised the U.S. military, said the United States could learn from its success in co-opting local tribesmen to serve as security force members in Iraq's western Anbar province.
"An easy and cost-effective measure fighting insurgency is at our fingertips, something that is cheaper for us than putting more men into the country or having to sacrifice more of our men -- not that we won't have to do that as well," he said.
(Editing by Eric Beech)