Obama to let Pentagon deploy even more troops, but numbers remain murky

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 3, 2009

President Obama has authorized Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to deploy several thousand additional troops, as needed, beyond the 30,000 that Obama on Tuesday said he would send to Afghanistan, according to a Pentagon official.

Gates can increase the number by 10 percent, or 3,000 troops, without additional White House approval or announcement, the official said, adding that "this authority is designed to give him the flexibility to better manage the force and provide the commander with additional resources."

A senior military official said that the final number could go as high as 35,000 to allow for additional support personnel such as engineers, medevac units and route-clearance teams, which comb roads for bombs. Both officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss understandings between the Pentagon and the White House.

The 30,000 troops Obama announced in his West Point speech would bring the total U.S. force in Afghanistan to about 100,000 by the middle of next year. But defense officials said such numbers always include the assumption that other specialized personnel will be required.

Also, because of rolling arrivals and departures of troops, the Pentagon and the White House often find it difficult to say with precision how many troops are where at what time. Numbers are sometimes loosely used to conform to political, rather than military, imperatives.

In his speech, Obama said there were "just over 32,000 Americans" serving in Afghanistan when he took office, supporting his assertion that the Bush administration had shortchanged the war.

In a pre-speech briefing Tuesday, a senior administration official said 33,000 new troops had been "committed this year" -- a total that the Pentagon said included 11,000 authorized in the waning days of the Bush administration and deployed this year, and 21,700 authorized and deployed by Obama.

That adds up to 64,700, short of the 68,000 often cited by administration officials as the current troop level. The Pentagon says more than 71,000 American troops were in Afghanistan at the end of November.

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