WASHINGTON — The U.S. general in charge of turning around the war in Afghanistan is likely to recommend additional U.S. troops, despite political headwind against further expansion of the war, according to military officials and others familiar with his forthcoming report.
As Gen. Stanley McChrystal readies his assessment of the war, due next month, numerous U.S. officials and outsiders apprised of his thinking suggest McChrystal will call for a significant shift in the philosophy of U.S. and NATO efforts there, in addition to a request that more American troops, probably including Marines, be added next year.
Officials and advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is not complete, and because the number of forces to be requested is in flux. However, several people familiar with the report cautioned that McChrystal could opt not to ask for an increase at all.
Any request for additional U.S. forces would require touchy discussions with the White House and lawmakers. President Barack Obama approved a surprise addition of 4,000 U.S. trainers earlier this year, after his larger announcement of 17,000 more combat troops, and administration and military officials had been signaling that further additions were unlikely for now.
A major tenet of the new philosophy would be coming out of the remote mountains valleys and increasing contact with Afghans in towns and cities, The Washington Post reported.
Proposing a focus more on protecting civilians than tracking down the Taliban, the report also could recommend troops climb out of their armored vehicles and do more foot patrols.
“McChrystal understands that you don’t stop IEDs [improvised explosive devices] by putting your soldiers in MRAPs,” Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington who served on the assessment team, told the Post. “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.”
A senior U.S. official said the rationale for needing more forces is tied to an altered strategy to clear and hold provinces where Taliban insurgents are fleeing as they are pushed out elsewhere.
The report was commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who hand-picked McChrystal to take the helm of combat operations against Taliban insurgents that top defense officials have conceded are stalemated.
Two of McChrystal’s civilian advisers, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, said this week they expect some expansion of troops. Neither adviser would quantify those numbers.
Biddle said Thursday he thinks the total number of troops in Afghanistan should number 300,000 to 600,000, including U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.
Current forces include 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 allied troops, plus about 175,000 Afghan Army and police. Some of the allies plan to pull their troops home in the next couple of years.
Several of the specific recommendations are undergoing what the Pentagon calls a “troops to task” analysis, to identify whether there are sufficient troops available or suited to the job. McChrystal is expected to discuss that review and his larger appraisal with Gates in the next two weeks.
Estimates of the additional forces McChrystal may request have ranged from a few thousand, such as a brigade numbering 4,000 to 5,000 and assigned to train the fledgling Afghan armed forces, up to 20,000 or more.
Obama’s additions will bring the U.S. presence to about 68,000 by the end of this year. That is roughly double the size of the U.S. force when Obama took office, and although Afghanistan is now considered the nation’s top military priority, the White House is deeply reluctant to keep adding troops, or to fight a skeptical Congress over the increase.
McChrystal’s predecessor left behind an unfilled request for an addition of approximately 10,000 U.S. forces, and Obama had been expected to review that request near the end of the year.
McChrystal was encouraged by superiors to assess the war bluntly and not to hold back in asking for troops, money, or equipment, and he knows he probably only has a short period to do so, defense officials and others in Washington and Afghanistan said.
To prepare the report, McChrystal gathered about a dozen military and outside civilian analysts six weeks ago and sent them on an intensive reporting trip through Afghanistan. The group finished work last week.