December 21, 2008 / 5:37 AM / 10 years ago

Extra U.S. troops aim for Afghan "tipping point"

KABUL (Reuters) - The British army once tried to drive the Taliban from Garmsir in southern Afghanistan with just 17 British, 10 Estonian and 200 Afghan troops. Now the U.S. army wants to pour troops into the area to make lasting gains.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates poses with a marine after speaking with troops at Kandahar Air field, December 11, 2008. GREUTERS/Scott Olson/Pool

For two years after the British attack, Garmsir went back and forth between Taliban and government control, thousands fled and it was only when more than 2,000 U.S. Marines launched a major operation in April this year that the town was fully captured and relative calm restored.

That is the kind of difference the U.S. army wants to make by sending up to 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan by summer.

After an initial reinforcement of some 3,000 U.S. troops to the south of Kabul in January, most of the extra deployment will be to the south to bolster British, Canadian and Dutch forces that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently are just “holding their own” in the fight with the resurgent Taliban.

“That’s where the toughest fight is,” said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announcing the planned reinforcements in the Afghan capital on Saturday.

Garmsir is a good example of what the extra U.S. troops may achieve, NATO officials said.

“When we put Marines out there earlier this year ... they found themselves in a pretty tough fight pretty quickly,” Mullen said. Fierce clashes ensued for more than a month and hundreds of Taliban were killed before the Marines pulled out and handed security to British forces and the Afghan National Army (ANA).

“As the Marines left down there, there was concern about whether or not we would hold. The Brits and the ANA have held Garmsir,” Mullen said.

Garmsir bazaar is now open again, life is returning to the dusty, battle-scarred town and more than $3 million has been earmarked for development.

The operation illustrates the “clear, hold and build” strategy employed by U.S. Gen. David Petraeus with success in Iraq.

Petraeus is now in overall command of operations in Afghanistan as well and his ideas are likely to form the core of a review of strategy in Afghanistan to be presented to President-elect Barack Obama.

“TIPPING POINT”

U.S. General David McKiernan, the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, has said he wants the extra forces to reach a “tipping point” against the Taliban.

He no longer wants to launch operations to clear an area unless he has the forces, preferably Afghan, to hold onto it and bring in aid and development.

The trouble is there are not yet enough fully trained and equipped Afghan soldiers and police to provide that sort of security to all of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts.

The United States is committed to nearly doubling the size of the Afghan army to 134,000 troops in the next three years and is working hard to reform the notoriously corrupt police.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad told CNN in an interview on Sunday that Iraq and Afghanistan were similar in size geographically, but the Iraqi forces numbered a much larger 600,000.

“Until (the Afghans) can do that on their own, there is a need for increased forces that we’ve agreed to deploy with coalition partners in order to not only be able to clear and area, but also be able to hold and build,” he said.

In the meantime, a proposal to “empower local leaders” and arm local militias to secure their own areas, somewhat akin to the “awakening councils” in Iraq, is being hotly debated by international forces and the Afghan government.

Given Afghanistan’s complex web of ethnic, tribal and local rivalries, the proposal is fraught with difficulties.

“One of those things you won’t hear is arming of the tribes,” U.S. Gen. Robert Cone told Reuters this month. “In many districts you have multiple competing tribes, so which tribe are you going to arm, which warlord are you going to re-enable?”

The proposal is for the Afghan government to engage with local elders representing the tribes who will then vouch for individuals to be recruited into a force that will be responsible for security in their area, supervised by the ANA.

“The generals clearly have a strategy now that they want to implement, the question is: will it work?” said one military official who declined to be named.

(Additional reporting by Paul Eckert in Washington)

Editing by Tim Pearce and Cynthia Osterman

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