Staff Sergeant Brendan Kearns went through urban combat training six months ago with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, preparing for a planned return to Iraq. In January, his brigade is heading to Afghanistan instead.
While Iraq has long dominated headlines, Afghanistan will demand more immediate attention, as President-elect Barack Obama becomes the first commander-in-chief since Richard M. Nixon in 1969 to take charge during wartime.
Intensifying violence is ramping up U.S. involvement, costing money and lives when America faces a record budget deficit and the public is weary of war. Backing off may allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban to return to power.
“The most pressing problem for the next president will be the Afghan-Pakistan conundrum,” says retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, lead author of the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
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“A resurgent Taliban threatens stability and perhaps survival of the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s a nightmare scenario, and we may have reached a tipping point where the Taliban is winning.”
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The Bush administration is reviewing its military and humanitarian strategy in Afghanistan and will offer recommendations to Obama’s transition team before he takes office Jan. 20.
On the campaign trail, the Illinois senator vowed to refocus attention there while pulling out most of the 152,000 troops in Iraq within 16 months. That’s becoming increasingly possible as deadly attacks have dropped dramatically since 2007, when President George W. Bush sent 30,000 additional U.S. troops.
The surge — along with the so-called Sunni awakening, in which tribes turned against al-Qaeda and formed U.S.-funded, government-allied militias — is credited with stabilizing the country. The Iraqi and U.S. governments have tentatively agreed on a phased withdrawal of American combat forces by 2011, subject to conditions.
Obama, 47, has said a “responsible drawdown” from Iraq would allow the U.S. to upgrade military equipment, pay for veterans’ care and redirect expenditures — which currently top $10 billion a month — to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaeda leaders are believed to be operating along the porous border with Pakistan.
Deciding what the U.S. can afford to spend is complicated by the $700 billion the Treasury is using to rescue the financial system, which may push the federal budget deficit next year to more than $1 trillion, following a record $455 billion this year.
“I know there’s a lot of economic problems in the U.S.,” says Kearns, 40, who’s based at Fort Drum, New York, and has served in both wars. “But the military at this point doesn’t need its budgets cut. With seven years of war, there’s a lot of wear and tear on equipment and personnel.”
Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, with a reconstituted and emboldened Taliban mounting more attacks on American forces. Neighboring, nuclear-armed Pakistan — threatened by domestic extremists, assassination attempts and a financial crisis — hasn’t been able to control border security in its autonomous tribal areas where militants take shelter.
General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has asked for 20,000 more American troops next year; the 3,500-person 3rd Brigade Combat Team deploying in January from Fort Drum will be the tip of that spear.