Withholding reinforcements for a decisive moment in battle (or for emergency) is standard military practice. As with most wars the means don’t matter so much if they end in victory, and that rule applies to the 1,400 additional Marines deploying to Afghanistan. Half of the 3,000 auxiliary troops President Barack Obama granted to Defense Secretary Robert Gates are meant to keep pressure on the Taliban throughout winter.
The problem for Obama and Gates is that they aren’t fighting a conventional war, but an insurgency. Even “victory” may come with a price. Fail and all the pressure shifts from the Taliban to U.S. forces.
This latest deployment comes fraught with risk. While Washington will take any extra troops it can get, 1,400 doesn’t appear a decisive force to blunt the Taliban’s operations. This would assume 112,000 NATO troops are enough when 110,000 weren’t. Divide the troops in four different towns and that leaves 350 troops per deployment. As NATO's estimate continues to peg the Taliban’s ranks around 25,000 - roughly the same figure as last year - it’s doubtful that these additional forces will provide any resolution by July 2011.
Unlike a conventional battle, where reserves play a key role in the final outcome, deploying a small unit of reserves into a long-term insurgency won’t produce such decisive results.
"The West certainly doesn't have the staying power to defeat the Taliban and reshape the country by 2014,” said Nate Hughes, director of military analysis at STRATFOR. "The Taliban can fall back and basically wait out the NATO forces."
Thus these 1,400 troops come with significant downside. First, this move was planned during the White House’s second review in fall 2009, and clearly known to Obama when he delivered his latest “speech” in December 2010. That means he deliberately avoided the issue in fear of generating political opposition. However waiting until now doesn’t relieve that pressure.
The White House and Pentagon’s decision appears even less transparent than their strategy already is, a common complaint.
It’s also possible, if not probable, that these 1,400 troops will be the only ones to leave Afghanistan in 2011. Since Obama’s 2009 review, we’ve constantly predicted minimal troop withdrawals in 2011 - and possibly no withdrawal at all. 20,000 is out of the question, 5,000 appears the maximum limit, while additional troops remain in question. The figures simply don’t add up; the Pentagon isn’t about to pull any of its forces during what it considers the decisive summer.
That leaves pulling out the auxiliary units as a realistic option, especially as NATO forces draw down after 2011.
Obama and Gates may believe they’re thinking politically, that “holding” Afghanistan’s militarily gains will create room to politically maneuver in July. But by hiding this news from Obama’s formal review and potentially viewing additional troops as a means of evading his deadline, Washington is breaking the rules of counterinsurgency through duplicity and mismanaged expectations.
And Obama’s seat will grow that much hotter if the Taliban return in force, Rather than relieve a burden, his July decision - and how he’ll sell it - just became a greater challenge.