BAGRAM, Afghanistan – U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan now top 32,000, the highest number of American forces in the country since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban.
The rise in force levels is a response to an increasingly violent insurgency that is spreading into new parts of the country. The top American commander in Afghanistan has requested three more brigades — about 7,500 more troops — and the Pentagon has promised that more U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan next year.
Following the 2001 ouster of the Taliban, the U.S. had fewer than 10,000 troops in the country, and no real troop presence in the volatile south. But troop levels have been rising steadily the last two years as violence has increased.
"What has become clear as the insurgency has picked up steam over the last year or two is that increasing number of forces are needed to clear and hold territory," said Seth Jones, an analyst with the RAND Corp. who follows Afghanistan. "In fact, I think a signifcant number more are needed. I would like to see those U.S. numbers come up."
In the fall of 2006, on the five-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion, Afghanistan had 40,000 international troops. Today, that number is almost 70,000.
The buildup comes on the heels of several recent reports warning that Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state because of deteriorating international support, a spiraling opium problem and a growing insurgency. U.S. intelligence officials have also reported that al-Qaida is growing stronger in the Afghan-Pakistan region.
Last year was the deadliest in Afghanistan since 2001. The U.N. says more than 8,000 people died in insurgency related violence, including more than 1,500 civilians.
Unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. provides the vast majority of troops, a 40-nation military alliance in Afghanistan contributes half of the overall military force, though only British, Canadian and Dutch troops engage in heavy fighting.
The 101st Airborne Division took command of forces in eastern Afghanistan on Thursday from the 82nd Airborne Division after 15 months in the country. Outgoing 82nd commander Maj. Gen. David Rodriguez welcomed 101st commander Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser at a hand-over ceremony.
Schloesser told an audience of Afghan and international leaders he expects the 101st, based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to partner with the Afghan army and police as well as the 82nd did.
The 82nd, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, spent 15 months in the country after the Pentagon extended tours an additional three months in Iraq and Afghanistan. It closely coordinated its operations with the Afghan army, a process meant to build up the fledgling institution so it one day can take over the country's security.
An outgoing U.S. commander along the Afghan-Pakistan border said he's seen a significant reduction in Taliban and al-Qaida operations in the region over the last year. Col. Martin Schweitzer also said he thinks talk of the Taliban gaining strength is only propaganda from the hardline militia.
"If they were as strong or as big as they claims they are, they'd own terrain, they'd own district centers," Schweitzer said in an interview at the main U.S. base at Bagram. "They don't because they're not that big."
He added: "I'm pretty convinced that the effect of al-Qaida as it relates to Afghanistan is being reduced."
Jones, the Afghanistan analyst, said that it appears violence has gone down in the east, where the U.S. primarily operates. But he said the south — like Helmand and Kandahar provinces — is "incredibly violent," and that the insurgency is spreading into the west and areas around the capital, Kabul, as well.
Schweitzer pointed to the number of districts under his command that support the government as proof the Taliban and al-Qaida were losing sway. He said 72 of 86 districts in the six eastern provinces he oversaw support the government, up from 24 when his brigade arrived in January 2007.
"That doesn't mean there are 72 free areas, safe areas, it just means that 72 ... have no-kidding picked their government over the Taliban," Schweitzer said.
Schweitzer said he'd like to see the success U.S. forces have had in the east replicated in the south, where British, Canadian and Dutch troops operate but where the insurgency is thriving. Schweitzer did not single out any country for criticism but said in general forces need to stay longer than four to six months, as some countries' troops do.
Schweitzer said he would like to see more troops in Afghanistan — so forces can partner with the Afghan military and government in more regions — but he also said the international community needs to dedicate more civilian expertise to develop the country's natural gas fields, the timber industry and the agricultural sector.
"I want more military forces because I'm comfortable with that. But what I need are these civilian smart guys who can roll up their sleeves, get into all 34 provinces and provide this eclectic approach to turn these provinces into self-sustaining money-generating communities," he said.