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Why 30,000 troops?


The more I chew over it, the more I think my dissatisfaction with last night's speech was that it was an argument for a strategy in Afghanistan, not this strategy in Afghanistan.

Take the 30,000 troops. "The 30,000 additional troops that I'm announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 -- the fastest possible pace -- so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centers," Obama said. "They'll increase our ability to train competent Afghan security forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight."

Okay, but why 30,000 troops? Why not 50,000? Or 10,000? Or a draft? If Obama is "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "this is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," then those are pretty high stakes. Indeed, Obama has been clear that this is far more important than Iraq. So why are we sending fewer troops than we sent to Iraq, even though Afghanistan is physically larger, with more difficult terrain, a weaker central government, and more strategic importance?

I'm not saying there aren't good answers to these questions. I just didn't hear them in yesterday's speech. Which makes it hard to understand what's on offer here. Is this the president's preferred policy? Is it the foreign policy incarnation of the stimulus, wherein we need 60,000 and can't pass that through Congress? Without a good sense of the underlying thinking, it's hard to identify the compromises being made, and figure out if they're acceptable, or if we're giving up too much to have a reasonable shot at success. Spencer Ackerman makes a good go at answering some of these questions in his analysis, but I'd feel better hearing some of this directly from the, well, decider.

Photo credit: By Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  December 2, 2009; 3:27 PM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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There's no good answer here. I've heard it's because 30,000 is pretty much all the troops we have to spare. My theory though is that the guys with the big nads at the Pentagon want to show they can do this job with the same or fewer troops than the Soviet army, which was about 110,000. The Soviets lost more than 10% of their soldiers by the way, so good luck with that.

Posted by: bmull | December 2, 2009 4:02 PM | Report abuse

I think you need to look that part of the speech where President very clearly talks about the limits of American responsibility and ability.

One way to look at President Obama's articulation is 'not to over intellectualize' and simply see what it is:
- no matter what, sending troops to war is a serious business and Obama asserts that he gets that seriousness (check mark, believable and acceptable) because the purpose for which he is sending troops is worthy, the cause is worthy;
- but the engagement cannot be open ended and must be 'constrained' by cost factors.

Given these two things, essentially Obama wants to undertake a limited exercise here. Why is it wrong? Why this insistence that it must be either full or none? Why such a positive 'gamble' bad here?

We are getting hung up unnecessarily here for so fruitless thought process. Cost, availability of forces from Iraq, what McChrystal asked in the first place and what Administration thinks it can get at maximum from allies; all these things are involved in deciding this troop number.

Outside of the Situation Room and Pentagon; it is unlikely that anyone can do the 'navel grazing' in this regard. Not that we should not question these numbers or examine the policy. But beyond a limit, these all are details only available to the War Cabinet and Generals on the ground.

That is the difference between commenting on HCR and War Policy. We are lot constrained here and that is the way it is.

Posted by: umesh409 | December 2, 2009 4:05 PM | Report abuse

"If Obama is "convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that "this is the epicenter of violent extremism practiced by al Qaeda," then those are pretty high stakes."

Sure but unlike Bush, Obama is committed to actually accounting for the cost of these troops. We can only afford to do so much, and 30K is enough to give the generals to set things up for a withdrawal without committing to a genuine, imperial-style occupation.

More than that, Obama can't just withdraw given this political climate. But he can't leave them there unsupported. I'm glad he put a hard date on withdrawal.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 2, 2009 4:11 PM | Report abuse

"but why 30,000 troops? Why not 50,000? Or 10,000? Or a draft? "

We don't have 50,000 to spare. 10,000 isn't enough to make a real difference. A draft is a complete non-starter as even (especially?) Republicans would go ballistic.

So 30,000 is as many as we can send, realistically.

Posted by: wiredog | December 2, 2009 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Ackerman: "Nor have they predicted with confidence when Afghan soldiers and policemen will be prepared to take over the country. Administration officials said that they would annually revisit target goals of Afghan security forces’ development, taking into account overall performance, recruitment and retention. "

We always seem to be (in Iraq and Afghanistan) acting like we just got the idea for recruiting and training local forces. What have we been doing in Afghanistan for 8 years, after hearing this same refrain over and over in Iraq? The truth seems to be, that the troops disappear or change sides in the spring when they want to go home to plant the crops, or the local warlord or Taliban chief says so. This is transparent hookum at best. We still don't have a multi-ethnic army in Iraq, after saying that was required year after year. Sunnis need not apply in Iraq, and Pashtuns are excluded in Afghanistan. Same old, same old.

Why 30,000 (and why aren't the number of private contractors ever mentioned or costed?)?

Here the truth is even balder. Our ground forces cupboard is empty. This 'surge' leaves zero brigades of army or marines not already deployed. Can you imagine any responsible military commander that plans for zero reserve forces? We are past the point of breaking the military, it is broken. But, we haven't money in the budget for a further expansion, and the word 'draft' is purged from US vocabulary. Has any army in world history been assigned a war that is vital for national security that hasn't had to increase strength by something like the draft? Napoleon lost his army on the way to Moscow and back, yet he had a major force of new recruits to deploy when Wellington came calling.

This is a strategy that can't tolerate a detailed examination. Obama had/has no real choices. McChrystal (and cronies) leaked the request-that-can't-be-denied. The 'host' country is collapsing. The Afghans are tired of foreign occupation and a do-nothing government at all levels.

Yet, the GOP keeps talking about 'winning'. Win what? With what?

The fabled Army counterinsurgency manual is very clear: this could probably be done with 300,000 troops, not 30,000.

This Cheney/Bush war will be our undoing, just like Iraq - but with different conditions inside the host country.

Meanwhile our economy is in intensive care (but bedded in the hallway between the coke machine and the exit stairs.)

Give up on making sense of our policy. We are well past rational action as a country. How was lunch?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | December 2, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

You're right on this subject. Obama is either not being truthful in describing what is at stake in Afghanistan, which would be consistent with sending "only" thirty thousand more troops there. Or , if he really believes his own rhetoric, he should be sending three hundred thousand or more solders, ordering an invasion of western Pakistan and asking Congress to have a draft.

He is probably following the example of other presidents who lied, were deceptive or exaggerated a threat to try to win sufficient popular approval for their wars or militaristic policies.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | December 2, 2009 9:45 PM | Report abuse

Why 30,000?

Because he can scrape about that many troops together who aren't on six months or one year stabilizations, and replace them, stateside, with 30,000 troops coming back from Iraq. Flatly, I'm amazed he could find 30,000, but then he had "94 days" consultation with the Pentagon, who must have been working their availability spread sheets in shear desperation.

Republican response, (I support him but (I don't)...) make it clear that he has already asked more of the Party than he should have, and asking for another 100,000 troops, or the draft, or taxes to pay for it would have been a killer.

Which means, at this point, that those troops go off to Afghanistan with virtually NO domestic support. The Anti war faction wasn't happy to be gin with, and the Right doesn't want to back Obama on anything.

I've been through a war like that. Obama was absolutely right to call it off in 18 months, because if he hasn't drummed up a whole lot more support that he has now he will have to start fifth, sixth, and seventh combat tours for the regiments he would have to send in as replacements.

And, based on what the Right has to say in these blogs, he hasn't a bug's chance at the Brickyard at the start of the 500 of getting any more support than he has right now.

And in all the verbiage across all the WAPO blogs I can't find as many as five posters willing to back the President wholeheartedly.

Thus has the "World's Only Superpower" come to earth.

Posted by: ceflynline | December 3, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

By the way, if we instituted the Draft today, the first he might expect usable combat units for Afghanistan would be between a year and 18 months. So the draft doesn't answer a single question.

We may need it, and we may even get it, but not in time for Afghanistan.

Posted by: ceflynline | December 3, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

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