An increase of U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan seemed like a certainty during a Pentagon press conference held Thursday afternoon by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though both men insisted no decision had yet been made.
With speculation rampant about an escalation of the war coming as polls show support for the effort rapidly eroding — especially among President Obama’s fellow Democrats — Gates dialed back his January testimony to the Senate that a large troop presence might cause the Afghan people to turn decisively against the war. Gates said that while he still expresses “concern” about the the size of the troop presence, “by the same token” he said that he “takes seriously” an argument made by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that Afghan tolerance for foreign troops depends on “the nature of that footprint” and the “behavior of those troops.”
Earlier this week, McChrystal delivered to the Pentagon the results of a strategy review requested by Gates to assess the way forward. Seemingly reacting to reports that have characterized McChrystal as requesting a “new strategy,” Gates emphasized that the review’s goal was to assess the “implementation” of the strategy unveiled by Obama in March, “not launch a new one.” Neither Gates nor Mullen would describe McChrystal’s assessment, which is not public, but Mullen called it “frank” and “candid.”
But several critics have expressed concern that McChrystal’s emphasis on “protect[ing] the Afghan people,” in Mullen’s phrase, represents a divergence from Obama’s March pledge to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.” A prominent critic, Michael Cohen, a defense analyst at the New America Foundation, has been blogging for months a feature called “Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch.” Even so, administration officials, who for months have described taking a counterinsurgency-based approach to a counterterrorism objective, have argued privately that they see little choice but to pursue a strategy that places providing for the security of the population above killing terrorists, which counterinsurgents contend is a more enduring path to stability.
Both Gates and Mullen rejected an alternative approach proposed by columnist George Will this week in The Washington Post to refocus military efforts on counterterrorism strikes in the porous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A “purely kind of counterterrorist campaign” conducted “from a distance” through air strikes was unrealistic, Gates said. Mullen said it would be ” no way to defeat al Qaeda.”
Still, Mullen acknowledged that “time is not on our side.” With 47 troop deaths, August was the bloodiest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan — a consequence, in part, of the decision to increase troops and intensify combat operation’s in Afghanistan’s volatile south and east — than during any previous month in the nearly eight-year-old war.
Mullen, however, has long struck notes of urgency about Afghanistan. First appointed to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2007, the admiral was one of the first senior officials in the Bush administration to deride his colleagues for their inattention to Afghanistan, famously saying that December, “In Afghanistan, we do what we can” but “in Iraq, we do what we must.” Mullen said on Thursday that “more important” than how many troops McChrystal might request for Afghanistan is “how he intends to use them.” He said the U.S. needed to show progress in the next 12 to 18 months.
Responding to the decreased support for the war in opinion polls, Gates rejected the suggestion that the war is “slipping through the administration’s fingers,” saying it was “understandable” that the public would be impatient after nearly eight years’ worth of simultaneous wars. “It’s important to show in the months that come that the president’s strategy is succeeding,” he cautioned.
It is unclear how many additional troops will be sent to Afghanistan, where 62,000 U.S. troops already operate and a few thousand more Obama has already ordered deployed are expected to arrive shortly. Gates and Mullen took pains to say the decision, if any is made, will occur through a collaborative process, first within the Pentagon and then with Obama and the cabinet. Mullen said he had met with the chiefs of all the military services twice this week already to discuss McChrystal’s proposed approach, with one of those meetings including both McChrystal himself and Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East and South Asia. Mullen said his role would be to keep a “clear eye” on balancing McChrystal’s troop needs with the “needs of the force in general” and around the globe.
In one possible hint that Gates remains uncomfortable with too large of a troop presence in Afghanistan, he analogized the process to the one over withdrawal from Iraq earlier this year, in which he and the Joint Chiefs of Staff persuaded Gen. Raymond Odierno, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, to pull out combat forces months ahead of Odierno’s initial proposal. Mullen anticipated another imminent meeting of the service chiefs on Afghanistan, but did not specify when it would occur.
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