WASHINGTON — Vice President Joe Biden, in a somber assessment of the road ahead, predicted Sunday that American casualties would climb in Afghanistan as the Obama administration shifts military priorities in the battle against terrorism.
"We've inherited a real mess" in Afghanistan, Biden said. "We're about to go in and try to essentially reclaim territory that's been effectively lost. . . . All of this means we're going to be engaging the enemy more now."
One of President Obama's first major foreign policy challenges is to confront an increasingly aggressive Taliban by trimming U.S. forces in Iraq and bolstering the troop commitment in Afghanistan.
But the complexity and potential cost of the new strategy were underscored Sunday by an outcry from Afghanistan over a U.S. operation that the United States said killed 15 militants but Afghan officials said had claimed the lives of 16 civilians, including two women and three children.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, January 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Biden and Afghanistan: An article in Monday's Section A about Vice President Joe Biden's assessment of the military situation in Afghanistan should have said that Biden's remarks had been made on the CBS program "Face the Nation." Also, the subheadline said, "Biden says the U.S. has 'inherited a real mess. . . ." The vice president referred to the new administration of President Obama, not the country, as inheriting a mess.
In Kabul, President Hamid Karzai condemned the strike, saying that repeated American military operations in which civilians are killed are "strengthening the terrorists."
Beyond the latest incident, the situation in Afghanistan reflects an earlier decision by the Bush administration and its allies to limit military involvement there -- an approach that has opened the way for a resurgent Taliban that now rules unchallenged in much of the countryside and stages effective hit-and-run attacks even on the urban areas where U.S. and other forces are concentrated.
And the Taliban's continued ability to operate from bases and staging areas across the border in northern Pakistan, with relatively little opposition from a weakened Pakistani government, adds to the problem for U.S. strategists.
Obama has pledged to deploy additional troops in Afghanistan in an Iraq-like "surge" designed to impose security in cities and towns that have essentially gone lawless. The increase -- at least 20,000 this year -- will significantly bolster the existing force of 32,000. But it will be far smaller than the roughly 140,000 serving in Iraq and only a fraction of what experts say would be needed to dominate the region.
Add to this Afghanistan's long history of bloody but successful resistance to outsiders. Remote, mountainous and riven by tribal loyalties and a network of local warlords with shifting alliances, Afghanistan has been a graveyard for foreign military forces, including the Soviet Union and imperial Britain.
It was against this grim background that Biden, asked whether Obama's surge in Afghanistan would lead to more American casualties, said: "I hate to say it, but, yes, I think there will be. There will be an uptick."
The vice president did not provide details of how the additional forces would be used, beyond saying that they would help train Afghan police and try to reclaim land. He did not say how many forces, for example, might be sent to the border with Pakistan, where many militants move easily back and forth across the rugged terrain and where Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding.
Biden, who traveled to Pakistan shortly before being sworn in as vice president, declined to comment on reports that a U.S. drone crossed into that country last week and attacked an Al Qaeda post -- but he reiterated Obama's statements during the campaign that he would not hesitate to strike within Pakistan if there was "actionable intelligence."
The war there could fast become Obama's most time-consuming overseas problem -- with U.S. military involvement rising just as troops begin to draw down in Iraq.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of Central Command, is conducting a review of the military situation in Afghanistan that is expected to be completed within weeks.
Obama last week named former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, in describing the region as "the central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism," the new president signaled that the additional U.S. soldiers could well find themselves in combat along the treacherous Afghan-Pakistani border.
"There is no answer in Afghanistan that does not confront the Al Qaeda and Taliban bases along the border, and there will be no lasting peace unless we expand spheres of opportunity for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama said.
Frederick Barton, an expert on post-conflict reconstruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the challenge Obama faces is to clearly define the U.S. mission in Afghanistan -- particularly if casualties rise.
There have been more than 600 U.S. troop fatalities since 2001, according to the independent website icasualties.org. That is far fewer than the thousands who have died in Iraq, but the numbers have already started to grow -- with 155 deaths in 2008 and already 11 deaths in the first days of this year.
"The American people will get very impatient unless the goal is absolutely clear," said Barton, who was an advisor to Obama's transition team on foreign aid issues.
Barton said that the added troops might initially produce greater casualties, but that by moving more aggressively into local communities they could head off efforts by the Taliban to gain greater control -- thereby ultimately reducing casualties among U.S. forces and their allies.
"There has to be a reestablishment of a new authority or we're really talking about a really divided country," Barton said.