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Civilian, Military Officials at Odds Over Resources Needed for Afghan Counterinsurgency
Divergence on the Means
The review team had reached a consensus that more troops were needed to pursue a counterinsurgency strategy. Members made rough estimates based on traditional counterinsurgency doctrine. But the numbers depended on how much of the country required such an approach -- parts of the north and west were deemed sufficiently quiescent -- and how many Afghan security forces could be added to the mix.
"I don't think anyone had any illusions that this was going to be cheap and easy," Riedel said.
In March, however, it was not clear to several of the participants that a significant addition of U.S. forces would be needed. Obama had only recently authorized the deployment of 17,000 more troops. Most would be heading to Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south, where the insurgents were making gains. Later that month, Obama agreed to send 4,000 more soldiers to help train the Afghan army. Several team members assumed those forces would prove sufficient.
Encouraging the view that a massive influx was not needed were statements from the overall U.S. and NATO commander at the time, Gen. David D. McKiernan, who said he had shifted his troops toward counterinsurgency operations. He was not asking for more forces beyond the 21,000 Obama had agreed to, plus 10,000 more in 2010, which the Pentagon told the White House it could address later in the year.
"Typically, you defer to the field for the resource needs," said one senior official involved in the review. "In March . . . we thought we had a handle on what McKiernan thought he needed."
A military official familiar with McKiernan's thinking said his request for 30,000 troops last fall was tempered by a belief that the Bush White House would reject it outright if he asked for more. As it was, Bush tabled the request, leaving it to Obama.
Another wild card was the role civilians would play in an expanded counterinsurgency mission. The review team agreed with Holbrooke's request to dispatch hundreds more development specialists and to overhaul U.S. reconstruction programs.
"The civilian component is just as important as the troops," the senior official said. "We knew they'd play a crucial role, and they'd help reduce the need for more troops."
All of the top members of Obama's national security team, including Gates, Clinton, Mullen and Jones, endorsed the report. Biden, who also participated in the final rounds of top-level discussions, maintained his objections to the counterinsurgency mission.
In mid-March, Riedel briefed Obama. Among the points he made was that, by the Pentagon's estimate, it costs $250,000 to keep a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan for a year. An Afghan soldier costs about $12,000.
The gist of what Riedel said, according to a person familiar with the conversation, was: "It's far more efficient to train Afghans who can speak the language, drink the water, understand the culture -- that's our ticket out. That's how we come to a good end here. . . . But while we're building up the Afghan security forces, we have to provide the security environment in which that will take place, and that means a significant force to do it."
But what Riedel could not tell the president was whether the 21,000 troops he had authorized -- plus the 10,000 on order, plus the hundreds of civilians -- would be sufficient.
"The military was not ready at that point to come to the president and say, 'Here's the number we think it's going to take,' " the person familiar with the conversation said. "They were satisfied that what they had put on the table at the beginning of the administration met their requirement for the moment."
At the same time that the counterinsurgency idea was taking hold among the review team's members, Mullen and Gates were starting to question whether McKiernan was the right general to lead the effort in Afghanistan. If he was serious about counterinsurgency, some in the Pentagon wondered, how could he not want more forces?
To senior military planners, counterinsurgency had a clear meaning -- and a defined prescription. The military's counterinsurgency strategy, FM 3-24, promulgated by Petraeus in 2006, calls for securing the population from insurgents, and it suggests a troop density of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1,000 residents in an area of operation. If that formula was applied to parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan where the Taliban is strongest, at least tens of thousands of additional foreign troops would be needed.
By mid-April, Mullen and Gates had decided to replace McKiernan with McChrystal. Although McChrystal has a Special Forces counterterrorism background, he impressed Mullen and Gates with his thinking about counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. Before he left for Kabul, Gates asked him to assess the mission and report back within 60 days.
To McChrystal and his senior advisers, the white paper was the strategy, and his job was to figure out how to implement it.
At the first meeting of a team of outside experts he convened to help him with the assessment, he told them, according to two attendees, that he wanted "a COIN campaign focused on the people."
After only a few weeks on the ground, it was evident to McChrystal that the situation was worse than he had expected and that there were far too few Afghan and NATO forces to protect the population. The hoped-for U.S. civilians were arriving too slowly. Although it was clear that asking for more troops would be controversial, it also seemed clear that the White House wanted a real counterinsurgency mission. And that would require more troops.
Back in Washington, some civilians involved in the review grew concerned that McChrystal's counterinsurgency plan went beyond what they believed was stated in the white paper. "Secure the population" was always a "military phrase," one senior civilian participant said. "That was the way they extrapolated from Riedel's plan," but "it's not in Riedel's plan."
To the military, however, the only way to do counterinsurgency is by protecting the population.
"We were operating under the assumption that when they said COIN, that's what they meant," said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan, "and they were serious about committing the necessary resources."
Last Tuesday evening, to prepare for a meeting the next day to discuss Afghanistan strategy with his national security team -- the first of several sessions to determine whether more troops will be sent -- Obama reread the white paper.
Staff writer Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.