U.S. Commander in Afghanistan Calls Situation 'Serious'

Lal Mohammad is recovering in a Kabul hospital after the Taliban cut off his nose and ears when he was found with a voting card on the way to the polls.
Lal Mohammad is recovering in a Kabul hospital after the Taliban cut off his nose and ears when he was found with a voting card on the way to the polls. (By Farzana Wahidy -- Associated Press)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The top U.S. commander for Afghanistan called the situation there "serious" but salvageable, in a sobering assessment issued Monday that is expected to pave the way for a request for more American troops, funds for Afghan forces and other resources. White House and Pentagon officials, while welcoming the assessment, cautioned that there is no guarantee such requests would be met.

The report by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who has been tasked by President Obama to implement a revitalized strategy for the war in Afghanistan, concludes that the Taliban insurgency in the country is stronger than previously realized, according to senior Pentagon and administration officials familiar with McChrystal's thinking.

To tackle the problem, McChrystal believes above all that the ranks of Afghan soldiers and police must be increased, and that they must be trained more quickly, the officials said. That training is expected to require more U.S. and allied forces, although the assessment did not provide specific requests.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable," McChrystal said in a statement. He added that progress will demand a revised strategy, greater "resolve" and a "unity of effort" by the NATO-led multinational force.

Although the assessment, which runs more than 20 pages, has not been released, officials familiar with the report have said it represents a hard look at the challenges involved in implementing Obama's strategy for Afghanistan. The administration has narrowly defined its goal as defeating al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and denying them sanctuary, but that in turn requires a sweeping counterinsurgency campaign aimed at protecting the Afghan population, establishing good governance and rebuilding the economy.

For instance, McChrystal thinks a greater push by civilian officials is vital to shore up local Afghan governments and to combat corruption, officials said. He is emphatic that the results of the recent Afghan presidential election be viewed as legitimate, but is also realistic in acknowledging that the goals of the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the coalition are not always as closely aligned as they could be, they said.

Separately, officials said, McChrystal's assessment finds that U.S. and other NATO forces must adopt a less risk-averse culture, leaving bases and armored vehicles to pursue insurgents on foot in a way that minimizes Afghan civilian deaths.

The appraisal comes amid declining U.S. public support for the war and growing tension between U.S. commanders in need of resources and a White House wary of committing to fresh troops. It echoes recent gloomy statements by top military officials such as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the conflict is "deteriorating" and that the Taliban is far more sophisticated than it was just a few years ago. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Monday called Afghanistan "a mixed picture" and said "a very tough fight" lies ahead.

This year, tens of thousands of additional U.S. and allied troops have flowed into the volatile country, bringing the total to more than 100,000, of which 62,000 are American. Casualties among troops have risen to their highest levels since the U.S. military overthrew the Taliban government in the fall of 2001.

McChrystal, who took command in June after his predecessor was fired, is expected to follow his assessment with a formal, detailed request for forces, officials said. That request, expected to be primarily for military trainers, will be weighed in turn by the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and by Mullen, Gates and the military service chiefs before being delivered to Obama.

McChrystal could request any additional non-U.S. NATO forces through a separate NATO chain of command.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that it is too soon to say whether Obama will authorize more troops for Afghanistan, and that McChrystal's report has not yet reached the president's desk. Still, he asserted, for years the war had been neglected.

"I think there's broad agreement that for many years, our effort in Afghanistan has been under-resourced politically, militarily, economically," Gibbs said. He called the mounting U.S. casualties and other problems in Afghanistan a consequence of the Bush administration's strategy there.

Gates said McChrystal's upcoming "resource recommendations" will be carefully examined, but he noted that "there are larger issues" to be considered.

"I have expressed some concerns in the past about the size of the American footprint, the size of the foreign military footprint in Afghanistan," Gates said on a trip to Fort Worth. "And, clearly, I want to address those issues. And we will have to look at the availability of forces; we'll have to look at costs. There are a lot of different things that we'll have to look at, once we get his recommendations, before we make any recommendations to the president."

In an interview with The Washington Post last week, Mullen said it might not be possible to fill requests from McChrystal for new troops.

If the demand for troops in Afghanistan goes up and is not offset by reductions in Iraq, it would delay the ability of the Army and Marine Corps to give heavily deployed ground troops more time at home between combat tours.

"That's a huge concern that I have," Mullen said in the interview. He noted that the concern was shared by Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, as well as by other service chiefs.

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher, William Branigin and Greg Jaffe contributed to this report.

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