Sen. Kerry says Gen. McChrystal's plan ‘reaches too far, too fast'

U.S. troops prepare to fire mortars in Konar province. McChrystal has requested 44,000 more troops.
U.S. troops prepare to fire mortars in Konar province. McChrystal has requested 44,000 more troops. (David Guttenfelder/associated Press)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sen. John F. Kerry declared Monday that he opposes sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan unless the government and military there improve their performance, and said the top American military commander in the country is moving "too far, too fast" in recommending an increase of more than 40,000 troops.

Kerry (D-Mass.) spoke in what was billed as a major address at the Council on Foreign Relations, after he returned from a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan. His remarks have particular weight because he heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a key ally of President Obama's.

In his address, Kerry seemed to search for a middle ground between some on the right who have called for a troop buildup and others on the left who have advocated a military drawdown and a tight focus on counterterrorism.

"A narrow mission that cedes half the country to the Taliban could lead to civil war and put Pakistan at risk," Kerry said. But he also argued against a troop surge, unless three conditions could be met: better Afghan governance, a bigger civilian development effort and a supply of reliable Afghan security forces to work with U.S. troops.

He said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's plan, which calls for 44,000 troops to carry out a counterinsurgency campaign, "reaches too far, too fast."

"We do not yet have the critical guarantees of governance and development capacity," Kerry said. He added that he has "serious concerns about the ability to produce effective Afghan forces to partner with" in military operations.

Kerry said, however, that "under the right circumstances, if we can be confident that military efforts can be sustained and built upon, then I would support the president" sending additional troops.

James Dobbins, who served as a special envoy to Afghanistan during the Bush administration and is now at the Rand Corp., said that Kerry had made many "sensible" points in the speech but that he found the conclusion unsatisfactory.

"The argument seems to be that we're not going to send more troops until we start winning -- which seems to me to be an inversion of the usual sequence," he said.

Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Kerry's tone differed from that of McChrystal, whose recent assessment warned that the war could be lost without an infusion of troops. But Biddle noted that the two men's analyses had a lot of overlap.

"They both think governance reform is essential, they both think economic development is essential, they both think the security of the people of Afghanistan is the center of gravity," said Biddle, who has advised McChrystal. "Both think the Afghan security forces should be expanded and we should put an Afghan face on the war.

"When you tick down the list of things Kerry said were very important, almost all of them were at the heart of General McChrystal's report."

Kerry called for NATO countries and the United Nations to do more to support development in Afghanistan, and said the U.S. civilian presence in the country is "disgraceful compared to what it ought to be." He said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton understood the urgency of dispatching civilians to help improve governance and provide services. "They're trying to find people as fast as they can," he said.

Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew told reporters Monday that almost 300 U.S. agronomists, diplomats, legal experts and others had been sent to Afghanistan since March as part of Obama's "civilian surge," bringing the total there to 603. The administration expects to have almost all its commitment of 974 civilians on the ground by the end of the year, Lew said.

"We're tripling the number of civilians who are in place," Lew said. He added that there is a 10 to 1 ratio of locally employed Afghans working with the U.S. civilians.

But Lew said that only 157 of the U.S. civilians are working outside Kabul, the capital, because the military has not secured some areas and two new U.S. consulates have not been completed.

Lew also said that the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, had asked for an additional 300 or so civilians, but that no decision had been made on providing them.

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