There were lots of signals from Defense Secretary Bob Gates at his press conference today. I didn’t want to let my imagination run away with me, but his body language was tight and his face looked tired. He looked like he had to make precisely the kind of momentous decision that he does, as it appears that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will soon deliver a request to the Pentagon for a second troop increase this year. In January, Gates told the Senate that he would be “very skeptical about additional force levels beyond what Gen. [David] McKiernan asked for,” a reference to McChrystal’s predecessor as Afghanistan-war commander, and we’re only a few thousand troops short of that total.
So I didn’t quite know what to make of an analogy Gates drew that I put in my piece today:
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.
I asked a knowledgeable Defense Department official, who would only talk on condition of anonymity, how Gates will react to any additional troop request from McChrystal. “You can be sure that the initial McChrystal request will not be rubber stamped without a lot of scrutiny,” the official replied. “The bar is not unclearable for major increases — but it’s set pretty high.”
Anthony Cordesman, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to McChrystal’s recent strategy review, wrote on Monday that the circle of experts McChrystal convened for the review believes as many as 40,000 additional troops are necessary. Gates would probably react negatively to such a large request — which is to say he’s indicating he needs to hear clear rationales for why the new troops ought to be deployed, and what they’ll do. This, after all, is a Defense Secretary with deep experience with Afghanistan from his CIA days; and who, as the defense secretary who supported and sustained the troop surge in Iraq, didn’t sound the alarm bells about the dangers of Afghan perceptions of occupation that he has about this current war. McChrystal may actually have a defense secretary who hasn’t made up his mind and who needs to hear a solid argument before approving a significant troop request.
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