President-elect Obama has called Afghanistan the central front in the war on terror. As the government conducts three strategy reviews of the conflict there, unanswered questions remain — such as whether to negotiate with the Taliban and how Afghan troops might be called on to defend their country.
But even without the answers to those questions, the buildup in U.S. forces is already under way. At least 20,000 more American troops are expected to be sent to Afghanistan in 2009.
Troops from the 3rd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, based at New York's Fort Drum, had been busy getting ready for a year in Iraq. They had hired Arabic speakers to portray village elders and police and had trained with them for weeks.
Then the call came from the Pentagon in August — a change in plans. The brigade's 3,500 soldiers were going to Afghanistan.
"It was out of the blue ... I'll be frank," says Lt. Col. Tom Gukeisen, operations officer for the brigade. He had to quickly change the training. "So it was a large shift, and a lot of that work went into shifting that to Afghanistan."
That included climbing mountains in Vermont, so soldiers could acclimate to the rugged Afghan peaks; shooting long-range artillery to practice firing on remote Taliban emplacements; and, of course, hiring dozens of different role-players who speak the Afghan languages.
Deploying To Critical Areas
Once the soldiers from the 3rd Brigade arrive in Afghanistan in January, commanders there will have to decide how to use them. The planning is well under way.
"I think it will change the nature of the game in the particular areas we're going to employ them," says Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, a senior American officer in Afghanistan.
During a recent interview with NPR at his office at Bagram Air Base, Milley stabbed at a point on a map — a spot near Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, where Taliban forces are blowing up bridges and attacking buses and trucks heading to the city.
French troops are currently guarding the northern route to Kabul. The 10th Mountain Division will protect the southern road to the capital.
When thousands more American troops get to Afghanistan, the plan is to send them to two other critical areas — in southern Afghanistan, the Taliban's homeland, and in the east, where fighters are streaming over from neighboring Pakistan.
"The numbers will have to go up in Afghanistan to suppress this insurgency in order to advance developments, advance economic development, advance infrastructure development and advance governance," Milley says.
The Right Mix Of Troops
By the end of January, another troop announcement is expected. This time, look for the Marines to head in, says Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, deputy chief of NATO forces.
"We do not have anything written so far, but we're anticipating — we're anticipating some Marines to come in," Tucker says.
As early as the spring, say Pentagon sources, thousands of Marines will be heading to southern Afghanistan. Tucker says thousands of support troops will follow.
"That is a combination of engineers, logistics, military intelligence, more helicopters and, of course, more ground troops," he says.
That's another challenge: getting the right mix of troops. Add to that list more military trainers, because Defense Secretary Robert Gates wants the Afghans to handle their own security more quickly.
"This is their fight and they have to be out front in this fight," Gates says. "That's why I'm such a strong supporter of accelerating the expansion of the Afghan army."
Ask American officers what it will take to get the Afghan military ready faster, and they will say about 1,000 more trainers. All these troops — trainers, engineers, shooters — are heading over as the government finishes the three strategy reviews on Afghanistan.
Some officials question whether it makes sense to keep pumping in American combat units before a new strategy is accepted. But the troops with the 10th Mountain Division don't have the time to second-guess.
Gukheisen and about one-third of his soldiers served in Afghanistan just two years ago, but they are returning to a more dangerous place this time around.
"Danger is a relative term, and we fought there and will continue to fight there until the government can stand up," Gukheisen says.
His troops are preparing for a deployment ceremony Friday at Fort Drum.