I am pleased that President-Elect Obama has recently confirmed he still is committed to withdrawing U. S. troops from Iraq on a responsible basis within 16 months from taking office next month, a plan and timetable that has been approved by the Iraqi government. However, I have very mixed feelings about his plan to support a substantial increase in our current troop strength in Afghanistan, especially considering our serious economic recession, our huge federal budget deficit, and great funding needs here at home.
As a reminder, our war there began in October 2001 as the military operation called "Operation Enduring Freedom," launched by the U. S. and the U. K. in response to the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on our country. The stated purpose of the invasion was to capture Osama bin Laden, destroy Al Qaeda, and remove the Islamic radical Taliban regime which had provided support and safe harbor to Al Qaeda. In 2002 a second operation, under a coalition called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), was initiated to stabilize the country. NATO took control of ISAF in 2003. While the U. S. and our coalition allies, particularly the U. K., were successful in removing the Taliban regime, we have not yet after seven years succeeded, as far as we know, in killing or capturing bin Laden or destroying Al Qaeda, though, fortunately, a number of their senior commanders have been eliminated.
There are three other highly troubling factors. The current government, led by President Hamid Karzai since an election in 2004, is fragile with limited political or military control outside the capital, Kabul. Secondly, despite major initiatives to stop it, the country has experienced record-high illegal production of poppies from which heroin is made, and trading the heroin is a multi-billion dollar business which is providing major funding for the Taliban and local warlords whose loyalty to the government is also generally fragile. Thirdly, the Taliban insurgents seem to have recently regained some of their political and military strength, in part as a result of some dissatisfaction with Karzai's government and the poppy eradication initiatives that have damaged economic livelihoods of many of the 32.7 million population.
The ISAF coalition currently has a total of 50,700 troops in Afghanistan, of which 20,600 or 41% are from the U. S. The U. K. has the second largest contingent with 8,330 troops. Third is Germany with 3,310 troops. Several other countries, mostly European plus Canada, have a smaller representation. Including National Guard units, the U. S. had a total of 48,250 troops there as of October 2008. Afghanistan itself has approximately 76,000 active military personnel, most of whom are in their National Army and the remainder in their fairly small air force.
I have mixed feelings about the plans to add something like 10,000 more U. S. troops for a number of mostly obvious reasons. While I would be very happy to see a stable, democratic Afghanistan, free of Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents, I'm not at all sure that this is plan is consistent with our original mission and that we should be committing large additional resources to what in effect is to a large extent essentially nation-building. We are already doing the bulk of the "heavy lifting" in terms of troops committed and casualties, with 555 killed out of a total of 1,016 suffered by the total coalition since 2001. U. S. costs are currently running at approximately $2.4 billion monthly and no doubt will increase substantially with the additional troops. While it would be very desirable to eliminate their impact and influence, I think it's a real stretch to think that the Taliban are a meaningful threat to our national security.
What would be my advice to President-Elect Obama? It must start with a careful review by his national security team and General Petraeus of our mission and current strategic priorities in the country. This review and its conclusions should also incorporate a realistic cost/benefit analysis from the U. S. perspective. Our main focus should be killing or capturing bin Laden and his senior deputies, destroying Al Qaeda, and training Afghan forces. We should place a high priority on minimizing the exposure of our troops to dangerous operations to the extent possible and consistent with our updated mission and priorities. We should continue to put due pressure on Pakistan to support our mission by clamping down on insurgent recruiting and training camps, as well as more closely monitoring their border with Afghanistan for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighter movements.
Importantly, we should also use renewed, better planned diplomatic initiatives with other Asian countries for military and financial resources to more fairly share the burden of fighting terrorism and stabilizing Afghanistan. I'm thinking especially of China, India, Russia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and even Iran, all of whom should have a national security and strategic interest similar to ours in the region, though we clearly have noteworthy political differences on other important issues. This should be a major priority for Hillary Clinton as our new Secretary of State, supported by President Obama's national security team.