The more I hear about the troop level increases that are ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY to win in Afghanistan, the more and more I feel detached from any sense of what this troop escalation is supposed to achieve in practical terms. That doesn't necessarily mean it can't achieve something, it just means that I don't know what 40,000 additional troops will be tasked with, or stationed, or deployed to support. And why 40,000? Where did that number even come from? I suspect that future generations will refer to "40,000 troops" as a "Kagan unit," the same way the "next three to six vitally important months" are a "Friedman unit."
But the escalation conversation in the media hasn't only failed to account for what 40,000 additional Afghanistan bound troops are meant to achieve, it's also run far ahead of whether or not such an escalation is even humanly possible. At the Washington Independent, Spencer Ackerman dug down into whether our current state of military readiness can even achieve the goal of the plus-40,000 crowd. What he found was this: "If President Obama orders an additional 30,000 to 40,000 troops to Afghanistan, he will be deploying practically every available U.S. Army brigade to war, leaving few units in reserve in case of an unforeseen emergency and further stressing a force that has seen repeated combat deployments since 2002."
You don't hear anyone talking about that, do you? But if the rumors are true, Obama is supposedly poised to green-light an additional deployment of 34,000 troops, which "would raise U.S. troop levels in the eight-year war to an all-time high of 102,000." But can it be done?
The shortage of available combat brigades means that an escalation of between 30,000 and 40,000 troops is "not realistic," said Lawrence Korb, a former senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration who now studies defense issues for the liberal Center for American Progress. To send practically all available soldiers into one of the two wars would leave the U.S. with "no reserve in case you had a problem in Korea."
Obama would have something of a cushion, but not much, in the early months of 2010. An additional five brigades will finish their 12 months of so-called "dwell time" at home between deployments by April 2010, providing an additional 22,600 troops, but by that time, about 10,200 troops will be scheduled to leave Afghanistan, leaving available a net gain of 12,400. More brigades become available in the summer and fall, although others currently in Afghanistan will be ending their scheduled deployments then as well. Under current Pentagon policy, dwell time for the National Guard varies, but can be no shorter than two years, and so it is possible but not certain that two National Guard brigades composed of 6,800 National Guard soldiers might be available for deployment by March 2010 as well, beyond the 24,000 theoretically available now. Pentagon leaders had hoped to extend dwell time this year, but that was before McChrystal's request for additional troops.
Ackerman took up this issue with Rachel Maddow on last night's Rachel Maddow Show:
A critical point: Afghanistan's "surge" won't be like the one in Iraq. As Ackerman points out: "Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan's escalation is being talked about in terms of not being a one-time surge, where when the initial brigades used for escalation go home, the whole thing goes back to where it was before, but a sustained escalation whereby new brigades have to come in and relieve the ones that go home initially."
All of this begs the question: Why has the "40,000 troops" idea taken root, when practical realities throw so many obstacles in the way of this escalation? Well, at the risk of using the tired "What we talk about when we talk about [X]" snowclone, what we talk about when we talk about "40,000 troops" is not the practical needs of the Afghanistan mission, but rather, the "magic number" that President Obama has to clear to avoid constant political excoriation. No one seems to realize that this, essentially, abets political blackmail on the backs of soldiers.
This is how the media is wired to talk about war: "troops" are nothing more than ephemeral concepts, measuring sticks against which we measure who's winning and who's losing politically. Right about now, you might find yourself wanting to blast the media for treating our troops as pure abstractions, but can you blame them? They're just following the example of the president who took them to war in the first place.