Correcting Andrea Mitchell’s Afghanistan Troop Figures
Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 2:02 pm
Andrea Mitchell went on MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’ yesterday and made a claim that freaked out former Rep. Tom Andrews (R-Me.). Her sources, she said, had discovered something from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s forthcoming resource request for the Afghanistan war:
The numbers are really pretty horrifying. What they say, embedded in this report by McChrystal, is they would need 500,000 troops – boots on the ground – and five years to do the job. No one expects that the Afghan Army could step up to that. Are we gonna put even half that of U.S. troops there, and NATO forces? No way.
Now, I’ve had some problems finding a full ‘Morning Joe’ transcript from yesterday, so I apologize in advance to Mitchell if I’ve not seen the full context for the quote. But this reflects some basic context errors.
It’s not a mystery where a 500,000 troop-total comes from. Look at page 2-15 of the McChrystal strategy review. It talks about accelerating growth of the Afghan national security forces. In particular, it seeks an ultimate target of 240,000 Afghan soldiers and 160,000 Afghan police, which is a combination of both accelerating current targets (like reaching the 134,000-Afghan-soldier goal next year instead of 2011) and raising the total end-strength. So add up the new end-strength. You’ll get 400,000 Afghan soldiers and police.
Now remember that President Obama has already ordered the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan up to 68,000 troops. The non-U.S. and non-Afghan troop contribution from NATO partners (PDF) is roughly 35,000 troops. That means if we take what current NATO troop levels are (or, when the first Obama troop increase is finished in the next several weeks, will be), and add them to the proposed targets for the Afghan national security forces, we get slightly over 500,000 troops — without any additional U.S. troop increases. Catch the vapors!
If Mitchell is implying that McChrystal will ask President Obama to reach those totals ahead of Afghan abilities to reach 500,000, she’s mistaken. The resource request amounts to a debate over whether the U.S. and NATO will need somewhat more than the approximately 103,000 troops already committed to get the Afghan forces up to 400,000. That’s a big difference. I’m told that McChrystal isn’t making any official statements on the resource question until after Obama reaches a decision. And he’s going to present the administration with a palette of resource options in the next few days, according to Gen. David Petraeus. But he’s just not going to ask that non-Afghan troop levels reach that astronomical and unsustainable total. Indeed, no less an escalation advocate than Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) reacted thusly to Mitchell:
We’re never going to have half a million American troops there. We don’t need it and it’s impossible that we’d ever do that.
The most likely explanation for Mitchell’s ginormous figure is a contextual misunderstanding between her and her sources. We’re going to have McChrystal’s request in a couple of days. Petraeus also said yesterday that we’ll have two weeks of high-level debate over strategy and resourcing questions. Until we have hard data, let’s all take a deep breath before going crazy with speculation, and certainly before we allow speculation to overtake basic contextualization.
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