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Joint Chiefs: Don’t Mess With Dwell Time

If you think there’s a house-on-fire emergency demanding that President Obama send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan right away (is your name Fred Kagan?) you don’t just have a problem with President Barack Obama. You have a problem with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

At a White House meeting Friday, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged President Barack Obama to send fresh troops to Afghanistan only if they have spent at least a year in the U.S. since their last overseas tour, according to people familiar with the matter. If Mr. Obama agreed to that condition, many potential Afghanistan reinforcements wouldn’t be available until next summer at the earliest.

A recent study by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, concluded that the U.S. has only three Army and Marine brigades – about 11,000 to 15,000 troops – capable of deploying to Afghanistan this year after spending at least 12 months back in the U.S.

Note that, by law, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "is the principal military adviser to the President."

Like every other patriotic American, I want to support our troops. If the Joint Chiefs say our troops need twelve months at home before being sent to Afghanistan, I think we better do what they say.

The rise is military suicides is a key issue driving the Joint Chiefs’ concern:

Army officials say the strain of repeated deployments with minimal time back in the U.S. is one of the biggest factors fueling the rise in military suicides.

The Army hit a grim milestone last year when the suicide rate exceeded that of the general population for the first time: 20.2 per 100,000 people in the military, compared with the [demographically-adjusted – RN] civilian rate of 19.5 per 100,000.

This year’s figures are likely to be worse than last year’s:

The October suicide figures mean that at least 134 active-duty soldiers have taken their own lives so far this year, putting the Army on pace to break last year’s record of 140 active-duty suicides. The number of Army suicides has risen 37% since 2006.

Despite all this, Fred Kagan appears to be criticizing President Obama for delaying action on General McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops.

The New York Times reports:

Frederick W. Kagan, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute who has advised General McChrystal, said that a decision in mid- or late November to add to American forces meant that most of those troops would not be in Afghanistan until April or May, past the beginning of what is traditionally considered the spring fighting season in the country.

According to the logic of Kagan’s apparent argument – we need 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan for the "spring fighting season" – Obama must not only agree to McChrystal’s request, he must reject the urging of the Joint Chiefs not to reduce "dwell time." I’m sure that Fred Kagan, as a patriotic American, supports our troops too. I hope he supports the urging of the Joint Chiefs that our troops get 12 months at home to train – and to live under the same roof as their spouses and kids, and to get their heads together.

Moreover, as the Obama Administration is being urged to press Afghan President Karzai to take action on corruption in the Afghan government, the Times reports:

Administration officials said that the biggest leverage they had with Mr. Karzai was the number of American troops in Afghanistan, a number that could change as Mr. Obama saw fit.

So, if President Obama announced tomorrow that he was sending 40,000 more troops, he’d be giving away "the biggest leverage they have" with Karzai – the same leverage they used, according to press reports, to get Karzai to agree to a runoff.

Finally, there is the question of Iraq. The ability of the U.S. to put more troops in Afghanistan is affected by the pace of drawdown in Iraq – troops that have completed their dwell time in the U.S. can replace troops rotating out of Iraq, or, if the troops are being drawn down in Iraq, fresh troops can be sent to Afghanistan instead. But an assessment on the pace of drawing troops down from Iraq is going to be made 30-60 days after the January 16 Iraqi election – assuming that the Iraqi election is held on January 16, which it very well might not be. So at the very earliest and very likely later, we’ll know what the pace of drawdown in Iraq will be in the middle of February.

So, holding fast to our commitment to our troops for 12 months dwell time, and delaying our drawdown from Iraq until the next Iraqi government is seated, means no 40,000 troop "permanent surge" in time for the "spring fighting season" in Afghanistan.

So, we’ll need a different plan for the "spring fighting season."

Fortunately, Kai Eide, the top United Nations official in Afghanistan, has a different plan: let’s give the "spring fighting season" a miss.

On the eve of the Afghan presidential election in August, Carlotta Gall reported in the New York Times:

"Among those urging a wide-reaching political solution is the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Kai Eide. A peace process, or reconciliation as he prefers to call it, has to be a top priority of any new government, as does improving relations with Pakistan, which has long backed the Taliban, he said.

The groundwork for that process needs to be laid through the winter, he says, in order to forestall another season of fighting next spring."

Winter is icummen in; the new Afghan government is in place; let’s get busy laying the groundwork to "forestall another season of fighting next spring."

Robert Naiman

Robert Naiman