Obama seeking options on troops levels in Afghanistan

By Anne E. Kornblut and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 31, 2009

President Obama has asked the Pentagon's top generals to provide him with more options for troop levels in Afghanistan, two U.S. officials said late Friday, with one adding that some of the alternatives would allow Obama to send fewer new troops than the roughly 40,000 requested by his top commander.

Obama met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House on Friday, holding a 90-minute discussion that centered on the strain on the force after eight years of war in two countries. The meeting -- the first of its kind with the chiefs of the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force, who were not part of the president's war council meetings on Afghanistan in recent weeks -- prompted Obama to request another such meeting before he announces a decision on sending additional troops, the officials said.

The military chiefs have been largely supportive of a resource request by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, that would by one Pentagon estimate require the deployment of 44,000 additional troops. But opinion among members of Obama's national security team is divided, and he now appears to be seeking a compromise solution that would satisfy both his military and civilian advisers.

Obama is expected to receive several options from the Pentagon about troop levels next week, according to the two officials, who discussed the deliberations on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

Before he can determine troop levels, his advisers have said, he must decide whether to embrace a strategy focused heavily on counterinsurgency, which would require additional forces to protect population centers, or one that makes counterterrorism the main focus of U.S. efforts in the country, which would rely on relatively fewer American troops.

One option under review involves a blend of the two approaches, featuring an emphasis on counterterrorism in the north and some parts of western Afghanistan as well as an expanded counterinsurgency effort in the south and east, one of the officials said. Obama has also asked for a province-by-province review of the country to determine which areas can by managed effectively by local leaders.

The president appears committed to adding at least 10,000 to 15,000 troops in Afghanistan in an effort to bolster the training of Afghan army and police officers in the country. Current plans call for the United States to double the size of the Afghan army and police forces to about 400,000 in the hope that they can take over security responsibilities.

In meeting with the military chiefs, Obama heard their assessment of the how prepared the services are to handle a new commitment. "Each chief discussed the state of their own service, how they are doing today and what the long-term consequences will be for each of their services," an administration official said. The military advisers also put the troop deployments in the context of the rest of their global deployments, including in Iraq.

It was not a "recommendations meeting," with concrete options of how to proceed, the official said. That will presumably come in the next such meeting, which has not been scheduled.

The timing of Obama's decision on Afghanistan remains up in the air. But his request for another meeting with the military chiefs -- and the expectation that he will meet again with his top national security advisers before reaching a conclusion -- may leave him too little time to decide the issue before he travels to Asia on Nov. 11. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to be overseas for much of that time, except for a brief stint at home from Wednesday to Friday. , giving Obama little opportunity to convene his war council in person. It appears increasingly likely that Obama will not announce his new Afghanistan strategy until after returning to the United States on Nov. 20.

Obama has come under criticism from Republicans, notably former vice president Richard B. Cheney, for deliberating so long, but his advisers have said he is determined to get the decision right rather than satisfy his critics.

In contrast to Iraq, where there was significant dissension on whether to deploy an additional 30,000 troops in 2007, the top brass has been mostly united in the support of McChrystal's call for more troops in Afghanistan.

Both Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in the Middle East, have told the administration that they agree with McChrystal's dire assessment of the security situation and his call for more forces to wrest the initiative back from the Taliban.

The service chiefs have not publicly voiced either support or opposition. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps chief, had campaigned hard this year for the Marines to play a much larger role in the country. In internal meetings, Army chief Gen. George W. Casey Jr. has raised concerns about "dwell time" -- the periods that troops have at home between deployments.

The Army is particularly concerned that soldiers who spend less than 18 months at home between combat tours do not have enough time to train for high-intensity tank warfare.

A U.S.-Iraq security pact requires the United States to withdraw its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, which would reduce some of the strain on the American military. But bombings this week in Baghdad, which killed more than 155 Iraqis, raise questions about whether Iraq is stable enough to allow for an accelerated drawdown in advance of that deadline, as some military officials had hoped.

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