Obama seeks Afghanistan data to determine U.S. troop levels

Ahmed Wali Karzai, left, a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaks to tribal leaders.
Ahmed Wali Karzai, left, a brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaks to tribal leaders. (Ed Wray/associated Press)
By Scott Wilson and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 29, 2009; 8:23 AM

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.

The president's lengthy deliberations gave way to more personal reflections early Thursday, when Obama traveled with a small group of aides to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware to bear witness and meet with family members as the remains of 18 Americans recently killed in Afghanistan were flown back to U.S. soil.

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.

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