By Scott Wilson and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 29, 2009
President Obama has asked senior officials for a province-by-province analysis of Afghanistan to determine which regions are being managed effectively by local leaders and which require international help, information that his advisers say will guide his decision on how many additional U.S. troops to send to the battle.
Obama made the request in a meeting Monday with Vice President Biden and a small group of senior advisers helping him decide whether to expand the war. The detail he is now seeking also reflects the administration's turn toward Afghanistan's provincial governors, tribal leaders and local militias as potentially more effective partners in the effort than a historically weak central government that is confronting questions of legitimacy after the flawed Aug. 20 presidential election.
"This is obviously a complicated security environment in Afghanistan, and the president wants the clearest possible understanding of what the challenges are to our forces and what is required to meet that challenge," said a senior administration official who has participated in the Afghanistan policy review and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it. "Any successful and sustainable strategy must clearly align the resources we provide with the goals we are trying to achieve."
As U.S. forces in Afghanistan endure the deadliest month of the eight-year-old conflict, Obama is weighing a request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, for a quick jump in forces to blunt the Taliban's momentum against concerns that too many new troops could help the insurgency's recruiting efforts.
Administration officials say that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and national security adviser James L. Jones, a retired four-star general, support Obama's request for a more detailed status report on each province that could identify potential U.S. allies among Afghanistan's local leaders, some with less-than-sterling human rights records.
Gates and Jones have pushed McChrystal to justify as specifically as possible his request for 44,000 additional troops, the figure now at the center of White House deliberations. The review group once included intelligence officials, generals and ambassadors, but it has recently narrowed to a far smaller number of senior civilian advisers, including Biden, Gates, Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Administration officials said the province-by-province analysis will be ready for Obama before his scheduled Friday meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House.
"There are a lot of questions about why McChrystal has identified the areas that he has identified as needing more forces," said a senior military official familiar with the review, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations candidly. "Some see it as an attempt by the White House to do due diligence on the commander's troop request. A less charitable view is that it is a 5,000-mile screwdriver tinkering from Washington."A range of options
The weeks-long White House review has been shaped by a central tension between the broad counterinsurgency strategy endorsed by the military and a narrower counterterrorism campaign against al-Qaeda that some senior administration officials favor.
McChrystal, who took command of the 100,000 U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in May, is promoting a plan that calls for concentrating forces around urban areas to better protect the Afghan population and pulling back from remote regions. His idea calls for speeding the training of Afghan forces, expanding civilian efforts to improve Afghan governance and starting other long-term programs to win the support of the population that the insurgency draws from.
About half the 44,000 troops McChrystal requested would be sent to take back Taliban sanctuaries in southern Afghanistan. The others would push into western Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has only a slight presence, and reinforce operations in the mountainous east. One brigade would train Afghan army and police forces.
Even after weeks of review, administration officials say a range of options is still under consideration, including whether additional U.S. forces could be deployed in phases. Although Obama had been expected to announce his decision before leaving Nov. 11 on a 10-day trip to Asia, administration officials say he may wait until he returns.
"I think it's important to hear and to get this right," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Wednesday.
In reviewing McChrystal's bracing assessment of the war, the president and his senior advisers have concluded that the Taliban cannot be eliminated as a military and political force, regardless of how many more troops are deployed.
The acknowledgment is behind Obama's request for an analysis of which of Afghanistan's 34 provinces can be left to local leaders, perhaps including elements of the Taliban unaligned with al-Qaeda. Administration officials have said that under any strategy, the Taliban would not be allowed to threaten the Kabul government or provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda, whose leaders operate largely from the tribal areas across the border in Pakistan.
"How much of the country can we just leave to be run by the locals?" said one U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy, who discussed the White House request on the condition of anonymity. "How do you separate those who have taken up arms because they oppose the presence of foreigners in their area, because they're getting paid to fight us because we're there, from those who want to restore a Taliban government? How many of the people who we're fighting actually share al-Qaeda's ideology?"
Obama's interest in provincial allies also reflects the administration's growing disenchantment with President Hamid Karzai and his inability to extend his government's authority beyond Kabul during his nearly eight years in office. Provincial governments and tribal structures have long exerted more power than the central government, which many Afghans view as remote, corrupt and ineffective. Another U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy said, "Most of Afghanistan that's stable is under local control."
"The question is: Can you get benign local control in more places?" the official said. "And will that be easier to achieve, and more effective, than trying to establish more central government control?"Refining a strategy
Critics of ceding authority to local power brokers point to Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, where Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai has been given wide latitude to run the municipality and the surrounding province. Security in the area has deteriorated over the past year, while the cultivation of opium-producing poppies has soared.
Some U.S. and Afghan officials contend that Ahmed Wali, who heads the Kandahar provincial council, has been reluctant to crack down on drug traffickers -- and the Taliban fighters who protect them -- because he is involved in narcotics smuggling, an accusation he has repeatedly denied. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Ahmed Wali has been on the CIA's payroll for much of the past eight years.
"Ahmed Wali illustrates the challenge we face across the country," a senior U.S. official involved in Afghanistan policy said Wednesday. "Do we pay him off to help us -- whatever help that may be -- or is our goal of improving the government more important than doing these kinds of deals?"
Obama is refining his strategy from several options outlined during more than 15 hours of meetings in the White House, administration officials say.
Some White House officials, including Biden, have advocated a strategy that would focus primarily on counterterrorism efforts against al-Qaeda. The vice president has argued for preserving the current U.S. troop level of 68,000, expediting the training of Afghan forces, intensifying Predator drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives and supporting the Pakistani government against the Taliban within its borders.
But the deepening conflict is complicating those plans. For example, administration officials say that sending additional U.S. training brigades to accelerate preparation of the Afghan security forces may not accomplish as much as hoped because recruitment -- and retention -- has gone poorly as the war intensifies.
"It's all part of the endemic problems of illiteracy and security that plague many countries, but particularly this one," said a senior administration official familiar with the review process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss it. "You want to increase the number of people engaged in training, but at some point bringing in more and more Americans won't produce quicker results. There's a ceiling."
McChrystal has advocated something far closer to a nation-building project. Some Republican supporters of the general's plan in Congress have compared his strategy to the 2007 "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq, a shorter-term effort that helped pull the country back from sectarian civil war.
But administration officials reject the comparison, pointing out that McChrystal's troop request would require a far longer deployment of U.S. forces and that Afghanistan is in a less dire position than Iraq was at the time of the surge.
Most important, administration officials say, the violence in Afghanistan is directed against U.S. forces rather than among Afghans. In Iraq, much of the pre-surge violence involved Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites fighting for control of the state, which gave the U.S. military a clearer role in protecting Iraqi civilians.
"There are some areas of the country that will fight us and fight the Taliban just because we are there," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday.