[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/16/art.gates.jpg caption="Australia Minister of Defense Joel Fitzgibbon and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert entering the Pentagon on July 16 to discuss a possible troop surge in Afghanistan"]
Senior International Correspondent
Every time I go to Afghanistan I hear the same thing.
We are short of troops, we are short of helicopters, we are short of money to put things right.
No surprise when I embedded with the 24th MEU in southern Helmand province I heard the same complaints again. Only this time, a very big difference. The comments were made by a General on camera not privately in a back room briefing. Every time in the past, apart from a few constructive comments about more money nobody was willing to rock the boat publicly and call it like it was, undermanned.
Gen Dan McNeill, the four star who was until a few months ago in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan and who is a genuinely nice guy to boot, talked around the subject with me in an almost hour long interview last year. He just didn’t want to say he was short of what he needed most, troops. Sure he said the Afghan army needed to train more men with greater speed, and that the Afghan police we woefully underprepared for their task. But on troops, he said he had all those he needed to do the job he’d been told to do.
Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, whom I met in Khost province a few miles from the border with Pakistan in December last year, put the blame elsewhere. He pointed the finger at NATO nations not the US for the short fall in troops. He was seething that some European nations wouldn’t contribute more troops and some that were wouldn’t let their soldiers fight.
What I was seeing on the ground at that time were bases like the one in Wanat, where 9 US soldiers were killed. A relative handful of troops pushed out from large central operating bases to better implement counterinsurgency strategy of being closer to the population, helping convince the Afghans their government supports them. In some places they barely had enough troops to defend their base perimeters let along patrol safely in the steep sided and heavily wood mountain valleys of the Himalayan foothills on the Pakistan border.
The counterinsurgency strategy can work, but in Afghanistan’s wild and mountainous terrain the Taliban are using it to their own deadly effect. Instead of rocketing big bases, which they still do occasionally, they are planting IED’s on re-supply routes, there are too few soldiers to patrol the re-supply routes so re-supply is by helicopter. Some of it’s contracted out to aging Soviet aircraft run by Afghans, the rest by NATO helicopters, and that’s a burden on the limited air assets. That is they were exacerbating the shortage of troops, by implementing tactics designed to draw more in to the fight.
Just a few months ago nobody was prepared to say any of this publicly. Now it seems it is open season on the shortcomings of the war in Afghanistan.
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