KABUL – Police officials from some of Afghanistan's most violent regions questioned the need for more American troops, saying Monday it would increase the perception the U.S. is an occupying power and the money would be better spent on local forces.
The police were responding to an assessment from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that warned the war was getting worse and could be lost without more troops.
President Barack Obama earlier this year approved sending 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of U.S. forces to 68,000 by the end of 2009. McChrystal is expected to ask for more troops in coming weeks, but increasing the number risks alienating Afghans, the police officials said.
The officials come from some of the provinces where the militant threat is the strongest and where international soldiers and Afghans alike have struggled for years to keep the peace. Their reluctance to add troops is striking because of their broad experience already against the Taliban.
"It is very hard for local people to accept any foreigners who come to our country and say they are fighting for our freedom," said Gen. Azizudin Wardak, the police chief in Paktia province. "To give the idea that they are not invaders, that they are not occupiers, is very difficult."
Mohammad Pashtun, the chief of the criminal investigation unit in southern Kandahar province, the Taliban's heartland, said that the money would be better off going to Afghan forces.
"Increasing international troops is not useful," he said. "For the expense of one American soldier, we can pay for 15 Afghan soldiers or police."
The top U.S. and NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, Adm. Gregory Smith, agreed that Afghan forces would be key to defeating the Taliban. But he added that the "major way forward" was to partner international troops with Afghan ones on a day-to-day basis, and not simply for the West to train Afghan forces and send them out on their own.
"We're really talking about complete layering of individuals at all levels to achieve, we think, much, much more increased ability to influence the professional development of the force — the ANA and the ANP — and then the day-to-day execution will just rise dramatically," Smith said, referring to the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
The Afghan army is trying to build a force of 134,000 soldiers by fall 2010, but McChrystal's assessment said the target should be 240,000, though it did not give a date. It said the police force must grow from a current 92,000 to 160,000.
"This will require additional mentors, trainers, partners and funds through an expanded participation by (the Afghan government), the support of ISAF, and the resources of troop contributing and donor nations," the assessment said, referring to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Smith said 20 percent of Afghan police are now partnered with NATO troops, and that the performance of those forces has risen dramatically. He said the current plan is to figure out a way to use the existing NATO forces "more appropriately" so that foreign and Afghan troops work more closely together.
Many Afghans say they are relieved to see international forces with the police on joint patrols. Afghan police are often accused of corruption and bribe-taking, while some American troops complain their Afghan counterparts are not battle ready.
About 4,000 of the additional U.S. troops that started arriving this summer are military trainers.
Reacting to McChrystal's assessment, Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi did not question the need for more troops but insisted they would should be sent to Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.
"The focus should be on those points and areas where the insurgency is infiltrating Afghanistan," Azimi said, a reference to Pakistani border region where Taliban commanders take refuge and attacks are planned. "They should focus outside the Afghan border, target the insurgents' resources and sanctuaries there."
While Afghans have their doubts about local forces, they also are not convinced international forces have made things any safer.
According to a July survey by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, 52 percent of Afghans believe the country was less stable that it was a year ago — up from 43 percent in May, when the new troops had only just begun to arrive. The survey, which interviewed 2,400 Afghan adults, had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.