Obama's War

Obama's War

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Correction to This Article
The article about the deployment of additional support forces to Afghanistan, and an accompanying graphic, misstated the number of U.S. troops in that country at the end of January, based on Defense Department data that erroneously omitted Special Operations forces. The number should have been 36,000, not 34,400. Also, the article and one of its headlines incorrectly suggested that all deployments of support forces in 2009 were unannounced; news releases on the deployment of 21,000 additional troops announced this year included some broad estimates of support troops.

Number of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Overlooks Thousands of Support Troops

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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 13, 2009

President Obama announced in March that he would be sending 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. But in an unannounced move, the White House has also authorized -- and the Pentagon is deploying -- at least 13,000 troops beyond that number, according to defense officials.

The additional troops are primarily support forces, including engineers, medical personnel, intelligence experts and military police. Their deployment has received little mention by officials at the Pentagon and the White House, who have spoken more publicly about the combat troops who have been sent to Afghanistan.

The deployment of the support troops to Afghanistan brings the total increase approved by Obama to 34,000. The buildup has raised the number of U.S. troops deployed to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan above the peak during the Iraq "surge" that President George W. Bush ordered, officials said.

The deployment does not change the maximum number of service members expected to soon be in Afghanistan: 68,000, more than double the number there when Bush left office. Still, it suggests that a significant number of support troops, in addition to combat forces, would be needed to meet commanders' demands. It also underscores the growing strain on U.S. ground troops, raising practical questions about how the Army and Marine Corps would meet a request from Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Defense experts said the military usually requires that thousands of support troops deploy for each combat brigade of about 4,000. That, in turn, exacerbates the strain on the force, in part because support troops are some of the most heavily demanded in the military and are still needed in large numbers in Iraq.

"There are admittedly some challenges over the next 10 to 12 months as we are downsizing in Iraq, and therefore any schedule for increasing in Afghanistan might have to be more gradual," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Pentagon and White House officials have not publicized significant deployments of support troops. For example, when Bush announced the Iraq surge, he spoke only of 20,000 combat troops and did not mention the approximately 8,000 support troops that would accompany them. When Gen. David H. Petraeus announced that the surge would end, he spoke only of the withdrawal of the combat units because he needed to retain many of the support troops in Iraq.

On Afghanistan, White House and Pentagon spokesmen differed over exactly what the president has approved.

Obama announced in a March 27 speech that he was approving 21,000 troops, and a White House spokesman said that the president did not approve any other increases before or after. Asked for more details on the troop authorizations, spokesman Tommy Vietor said the Pentagon was better suited to provide such "technical information."

Defense officials, however, acknowledge that the request for 21,000 troops has led to the authorization of more forces.

"The 21,000 are only combat forces, and when the combat forces go in, there are a certain amount of additional forces that are required," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who signs the deployment orders, had military officials identify last spring the entire scope of the increase and agreed that he would consult with Obama again if the Pentagon sought to go above that, Whitman said.

"Obama authorized the whole thing. The only thing you saw announced in a press release was the 21,000," said another defense official familiar with the troop-approval process.


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