No Limit in Place for Pending Request on Troops in Afghanistan

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff discusses troop levels and a new counterinsurgency strategy.Video by Elizabeth Tenety and Andrea UseemEdited by Ashley Barnas/The Washington Post
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

The nation's top military officer said yesterday that no limits have been placed on the number or types of troops the new U.S. commander in Afghanistan can request as he seeks to carry out a counterinsurgency strategy there.

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is conducting a 60-day assessment of the Afghanistan campaign and has been advised to tell Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and President Obama, "Here's what I need."

"There are no preconditions associated with that," Mullen said. "He's . . . been told, 'In this assessment, you come back and ask for what you need.' There are certainly no intended limits with respect to that kind of request."

McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, had an unmet request for an additional 10,000 U.S. troops to deploy next year. But McChrystal is not bound by that or any prior assessment, Mullen said. "General McChrystal gets to take a fresh view and a fresh look, and he will do that."

Mullen made the remarks on the same day The Washington Post reported that national security adviser James L. Jones had recently told U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan that the Obama administration seeks to hold troop levels steady and shift the focus to the country's economic development and governance. Mullen was not asked directly about the article, but his statements suggest that the military seeks to defend McChrystal's latitude to make the case for more troops if he sees the need. Mullen voiced a high level of confidence in the ability of McChrystal, who until recently worked for Mullen as the director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, to carry out the new strategy.

Mullen said that he, Gates and McChrystal think that military force alone cannot win the war in Afghanistan and that if the foreign troop contingent in the country grows too big, it could create the impression that it is an occupation force. However, Mullen emphasized that he does not know where that threshold lies and that the level of forces in Afghanistan has long been too low to secure the population -- the main thrust of the counterinsurgency campaign.

"We have been under-resourced in Afghanistan almost from the beginning, certainly for the last several years," Mullen said. There are currently 57,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 34,000 non-U.S. allied troops. An increase of 21,000 U.S. troops ordered by President Obama is underway and will raise the overall total of American troops there to 68,000 this year.

One consequence of the limited numbers of troops has been a heavier reliance on airstrikes, resulting in Afghan civilian casualties. McChrystal has ordered allied troops to adopt measures to diminish civilian casualties -- breaking away from fighting in villages, for example, and risking civilian casualties only where necessary to save the lives of U.S. troops. Asked whether such restrictions could increase the danger for American forces or offer an advantage to insurgents who take shelter with civilians, Mullen said that was not the intention.

"We don't want them to feel as though they're restrained and have a hand tied behind their back at all," or to cause delay or hesitation, Mullen said of the troops. He stressed that taking action was "never a question when it's a matter of saving and protecting U.S. forces' lives." Still, he said, the goal is to "to make sure they think through three or four steps ahead in an operation . . . to do all they can to minimize civilian casualties."

The shortage of troops has been particularly acute in southern Afghanistan, where thousands of Marines launched a major operation today in the restive province of Helmand.

"I expect it to be a pretty tough fight in Helmand this year. . . . We haven't had significant numbers of forces there in the past, but on the upside of that, we have enough forces now to hold, not just to win, the fight," Mullen said. Taliban insurgents had effectively created a stalemate with U.S., other NATO and Afghan forces in Helmand and other parts of the south, commanders have said in recent months.

Mullen said he is "extremely concerned" about the paucity of Afghan National Army and Afghan police forces in the south and elsewhere and about the long-standing deficit in the number of foreign military trainers needed to expand their ranks.

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