By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he has ordered the deployment of as many as 3,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan to meet what the top commander there has described as pressing security needs.
The additional troops, who Gates said were requested by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, are not part of units designated to be deployed under President Obama's original orders to send 21,000 more service members to Afghanistan this year.
Senior defense officials said, however, that Gates has the flexibility to add the forces without exceeding the planned overall increase there by the end of this year. Some units Obama ordered have not deployed at full strength, and McChrystal has decided that at least 1,000 troops currently in Afghanistan are not needed.
"I'm prepared to ask for the flexibility to send more enablers if we need to before the president makes a decision on whether or not to send significant additional combat troops," Gates said at a Pentagon news conference, using the term "enablers" to refer to support troops as opposed to combat units.
The 2,500 to 3,000 troops include explosive ordnance disposal teams, route clearance teams, medevac units and intelligence specialists needed to combat the growing threat of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which are the leading cause of death among U.S. forces in the country.
Under Obama's earlier order, the total number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan can reach 68,000.
"No matter what we do about more combat troops, our forces there require the best counter-IED capabilities we can provide," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
Meanwhile, McChrystal has finished drawing up his request for what is expected to be thousands or tens of thousands of additional trainers and combat troops for Afghanistan, but he is awaiting instructions before submitting the request to the Pentagon.
Senior defense officials said that, in effect, McChrystal has been asked to delay submitting the request.
"We're working through the process by which we want that submitted," Gates told reporters, without elaborating.
Asked when Obama would make a decision on sending more troops to Afghanistan, Gates replied: "I don't want to get into the timing. The president will make his decision when the questions that he has asked and the assessments that are going on have been completed. And I don't think anybody should put any conditions on that."
Gates also stressed that the uncertainty in the aftermath of the disputed presidential election in Afghanistan has created new challenges for the administration as it assesses its strategy. Such political questions must be weighed by the administration and are "outside of General McChrystal's area of authority," Gates said.
Gates said McChrystal's assessment is "a pre-decisional document," indicating that it should not be released publicly. On Thursday, the Pentagon distributed only a small number of copies of the still-classified assessment to the House and Senate. Those copies were available only to a select few members.
Lawmakers have been pressing the administration to be more forthcoming about its strategy in Afghanistan and have urged that it bring McChrystal to Washington to testify. On Thursday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued another call to hear from the general, whom Obama put in charge in June.
"It is imperative that the American people and members of Congress hear from General McChrystal directly about the situation on the ground -- and soon," Boehner said.
Boehner noted that when Gen. David H. Petraeus was the top commander in Iraq, he returned to testify and "spoke plainly" about his strategy.
"That testimony was critical to Congress making informed decisions regarding success in our mission there," Boehner said. "The request to hear from General McChrystal is bipartisan and appropriate. The American people have real concerns about what's going on in Afghanistan, and so do I."
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.