Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan set to overtake Iraq

May 2, 2010
(On patrol in Kandahar proivince.Reuters/Jonathon Burch

(On patrol in Kandahar province. Reuters/Jonathon Burch)

At some point this month or early June, the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will outnumber those in Iraq, writes Michael E. O ‘Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. It’s an artificial milestone but it is worth noting because it tells you a good deal about the two wars and where the United States stands in each.

The cross-over is also a measure of how big and rapid has the shift been in America’s military power toward Afghanistan since President Barack Obama took office last year promising to bring the troops home.

There are currently around 90,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and just under 100,000 in Iraq. The United States is adding roughly 2,000 more troops each month in Afghanistan as part of a build-up to beat back a resurgent Taliban while drawing down more than 5,000 from Iraq.

By the end of the summer, the troop strength in Afghanistan will hit 100,000 while the number in Iraq would have fallen to half of that. It’s a dramatic shift since Obama was inaugurated as U.S. president in January last year when there were just 35,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The casualty count from the two wars also tells you about which is the hotter theatre, perhaps in part also because more troops mean more fighting.  U.S. casualties in Afghanistan are greater than Iraq by a ratio of roughly 5 to 1, and that imbalance will likely increase over the course of the year, says O’Hanlon.AFGHANISTAN/

So is the growing U.S. troop presence making a difference? A progress report issued by the Pentagon this week on the security situation in Afghanistan paints a mixed picture.

Despite the addition of more than 50,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the past year, there still aren’t enough forces to conduct operations in the majority of key areas, it said.

Coalition forces have decided to focus their efforts on 121 key districts in Afghanistan but right now NATO has enough forces to operate in only 48 of those districts, the report said. Here’s the PDF of the report.

Overall, the country’s deteriorating security situation had levelled off, although there has been a spike of 87 percent between February 2009 and March 2010. A senior Defense official attributed the increase to the presence of more troops in Afghanistan moving into tougher areas.

The Taliban are also adjusting their battle strategy to the U.S.  troop surge, accounting for greater casualties.

Taliban commanders responded to the U.S. troop increase by ordering their fighters to avoid head-on clashes with American-led forces and instead stepping up their use of long-distance attacks and roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices, the report said.

The number of IED (improvised explosive devices) incidents increased by 236 percent over the past year.

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