BRUSSELS — More than 100,000 international troops are already in Afghanistan working with 200,000 Afghan security forces and police. It adds up to a 12-1 numerical advantage over Taliban rebels, but it hasn't led to anything close to victory.
Now, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan is asking for tens of thousands more troops to stem the escalating insurgency, raising the question of how many more troops it would take to succeed.
The White House said Tuesday that President Barack Obama has nearly finished gathering information and advice on how to proceed in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the president's advisers are coalescing around a strategy aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers. The newspaper said administration officials described an approach that would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability.
Those officials, the newspaper reported, say the debate is no longer over whether to send additional troops but how many more will be needed to guard the most vital parts of the country.
At the moment, the administration is looking at protecting Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, Kunduz, Herat, Jalalabad and a few other village clusters, the New York Times reported. The first of any new troops sent to Afghanistan would be assigned to secure Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban, which is seen as a center of gravity in pushing back insurgent advances.
Military planners also are pressing for enough troops to safeguard major agricultural areas and regional highways essential to the economy — tasks that would require significantly more reinforcements beyond the 21,000 deployed by Obama earlier this year.
"The U.S. and its allies already have ample numbers and firepower to annihilate the Taliban, if only the Taliban would cooperate by standing still and allowing us to bomb them to smithereens," said Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations and history at Boston University, and one-time platoon leader in Vietnam.
"But the insurgents are conducting the war in ways that do not play to (allied) strengths."
The Taliban rebels are estimated to number no more than 25,000. Ljubomir Stojadinovic, a military analyst and guerrilla warfare expert from Serbia, said U.S. and NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's reinforcements would lift the ratio to 20-1 or more, but they would prove counterproductive.
"It's impossible to regain the initiative by introducing more foreign forces, which will only breed more resentment and more recruits for the enemy," he said. "The Soviets tried the exact same thing in Afghanistan in the 1980s with disastrous results."
McChrystal's defenders say the United States has learned from the Soviets' mistakes. At his instruction, NATO troops are increasingly abandoning heavy-handed tactics.
"In the end this (conflict) cannot be solved by military means alone, and in that sense a precise figure of Taliban fighters is not the point," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai.
Experts also say guerrilla numbers are not the most important factor in a counterinsurgency campaign. Instead, the number of U.S. troops depends on more complex calculations, including the size and location of the population and the extent of the training effort for the Afghan security forces.
Appathurai said the goals of the Afghanistan strategy are key to determining how many forces are required. The goal is to have enough troops in populated areas to protect the citizenry and to provide the forces needed to train the Afghans.
In addition, while there may be as many as 25,000 Taliban, it is not a monolithic group like an army, with a clear chain of command that has to be confronted soldier for soldier. Instead, it is a scattered and diverse mix of insurgents, some more ideologically motivated than others.
There are currently about 104,000 international troops in Afghanistan, including about 68,000 Americans. Afghan security forces consist of 94,000 troops supported by a similar number of police, bringing the total Allied force to close to 300,000 members.
The 12-1 ratio may be misleading because two-thirds of the Allied force is made up of Afghans, who lack training and experience. The Taliban usually fight in small, cohesive units made up of friends and fellow clansmen. A more meaningful ratio, then, might be 4-1 or 5-1.
Historically in guerrilla wars, security forces have usually had at least a 3-1 advantage.
At the height of the U.S. ground involvement in South Vietnam in 1968, the 1.2 million American troops and their allies outnumbered the Communist guerrillas by about 4-1.
Publicly, NATO and U.S. officials have been tightlipped about Taliban strength, arguing that the guerrillas, split into a number of semiautonomous factions, regularly slip in and out of Afghanistan from Pakistan — making numbers a matter of guesswork.
But, according to the Associated Press, several officers at NATO headquarters in Brussels say the alliance does have reasonably accurate estimates of the number of enemy combatants its troops are facing in Afghanistan.
Recent U.S. government estimates have also put the number of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan at about 25,000.
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.
Deadliest month yet
Eight U.S. troops die Tuesday, making October the deadliest month for Americans in Afghanistan since the war began. 9A
A former Marine who became a diplomat in Afghanistan resigns in protest of the war. 3A