In Afghanistan, U.S. May Shift Strategy
Request for Big Boost in Afghan Troops Could Also Require More Americans
Friday, July 31, 2009
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan is preparing a new strategy that calls for major changes in the way U.S. and other NATO troops there operate, a vast increase in the size of Afghan security forces and an intensified military effort to root out corruption among local government officials, according to several people familiar with the contents of an assessment report that outlines his approach to the war.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan last month, appears inclined to request an increase in American troops to implement the new strategy, which aims to use more unconventional methods to combat the growing Taliban insurgency, according to members of an advisory group he convened to work on the assessment. Such a request could receive a chilly reception at the White House, where some members of President Obama's national security team have expressed reluctance about authorizing any more deployments.
Senior military officials said McChrystal is waiting for a recommendation from a team of military planners in Kabul before reaching a final decision on a troop request. Several members of the advisory group, who spoke about the issue of force levels on the condition of anonymity, said that they think more U.S. troops are needed but that it was not clear how large an increase McChrystal would seek.
"There was a very broad consensus on the part of the assessment team that the effort is under-resourced and will require additional resources to get the job done," a senior military official in Kabul said.
A request for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan could pose a political challenge for Obama. Some leading congressional Democrats have voiced skepticism about sustaining current force levels, set to reach 68,000 by the fall. After approving an extra 21,000 troops in the spring, Obama himself questioned whether "piling on more and more troops" would lead to success, and his national security adviser, James L. Jones, told U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan last month that the administration wants to hold troop levels flat for now.
One senior administration official said some members of Obama's national security team want to see how McChrystal uses the 21,000 additional troops before any more deployments are authorized. "It'll be a tough sell," the official said.
Even so, McChrystal has been instructed by his superiors -- including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen -- to conduct a thorough assessment of the war effort and articulate his recommendations. While McChrystal has indicated to some of his advisers that he is leaning toward asking for more forces, he has also emphasized that his strategy will involve fundamental changes in the way those troops are used.
One of the key changes outlined in the latest drafts of the assessment report, which will be provided to Gates by mid-August, is a shift in the "operational culture" of U.S. and NATO forces. Commanders will be encouraged to increase contact with Afghans, even if it means living in less-secure outposts inside towns and spending more time on foot patrols instead of in vehicles.
"McChrystal understands that you don't stop IEDs [improvised explosive devices] by putting your soldiers in MRAPs," heavily armored trucks designed to withstand blasts, said Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington who served on the assessment team. "You stop them by convincing the population not to plant them in the first place, and that requires getting out of trucks and interacting with people."
The report calls for intelligence resources to be realigned to focus more on tribal and social dynamics so commanders can identify local power brokers and work with them. Until recently, the vast majority of U.S. and NATO intelligence assets had been oriented toward tracking insurgents.
The changes are aimed at fulfilling McChrystal's view that the primary mission of the international forces is not to conduct raids against Taliban strongholds but to protect civilians and help the Afghan government assume responsibility for maintaining security. "The focus has to be on the people," he said in a recent interview.
To accomplish that, McChrystal has indicated that he is considering moving troops out of remote mountain valleys where Taliban fighters have traditionally sought sanctuary and concentrating more forces around key population centers.
The assessment report also urges the United States and NATO to almost double the size of the Afghan security forces. It calls for expanding the Afghan army from 134,000 soldiers to about 240,000, and the police force from 92,000 personnel to about 160,000. Such an increase would require additional U.S. forces to conduct training and mentoring.
McChrystal and his top lieutenants have expressed concern about a lack of Afghan soldiers to patrol alongside foreign troops and to take responsibility for protecting pacified areas from Taliban infiltration. In Helmand province, where U.S. Marines are engaged in a major operation, fewer than 500 Afghan soldiers are available to work with almost 11,000 American service members.
Some U.S. and European officials involved in Afghanistan policy warn that the Afghan government does not have the means to pay for such a large army and police force, but McChrystal and his assessment team believe additional Afghan troops are essential to the country's stability. U.S. officials have said that they would like European nations to help cover the cost of training and sustaining additional Afghan forces.
The strategy advocates changes in what happens after Afghan soldiers graduate from boot camp. Instead of just placing small groups of U.S. trainers with Afghan units, the assessment calls for a top-to-bottom partnership between Afghan and NATO security forces that involves everyone from generals to privates working in tandem. "We've got to live together, we've got to train together, we've got to conduct operations together," one senior U.S. military official in Kabul said. "Everything we do has to be done together."
The assessment also calls for U.S. and NATO forces to be far more involved in fighting corruption and promoting effective governance, describing the risk to the overall mission from ineffective and venal government officials as being on par with the threat from top Taliban commanders. "These are co-equal ways we could lose the war," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on the assessment team.
The team, which spent more than a dozen hours meeting with McChrystal over the past month, was made up of several prominent national security specialists from a variety of think thanks in Washington, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.