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Is Levin’s Afghans-Not-New-Troops Position a Face-Saving Compromise?

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) may have made quite the bureaucratic gambit today by calling for an acceleration of the schedule to train Afghan security forces ahead of any new U.S. troop deployment. That position attracted the support (with caveats) of respected counterinsurgency theorist-practitioners like John Nagl of the Center for a New American Security. Accordingly, it might be a way to broker a compromise within the administration, and between the administration and a reluctant Democratic Congress.

Levin’s position — lean on Afghan security forces, as new U.S. troop deployments are inherently problematic — was for a long time advocated by Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Gates was, of course, the defense secretary in charge of supporting the Iraq troop surge of 2007. He backed 30,000 new troops for Afghanistan above 2008 levels. In short, he’s not the kind of guy who reflexively opposes U.S. troop increases.

But here comes an expected troop request from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the new Afghanistan commander, after McChrystal has already been told by retired Gen. Jim Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, that Obama won’t really look favorably on one after ordering 21,000 new troops to Afghanistan already this year. Gates shifted positions last week to accommodate himself to McChrystal. And while some knowledgeable Pentagon officials believe that Gates will set a high evidentiary bar before acquiescing to another troop increase, it’s politically perilous — even with public opinion registering an anemic 24 percent support for the increase — to refuse a commander’s request.

Enter Levin. The chairman of the Senate armed services committee might have given the administration and McChrystal an out. “There may be some room for common ground” emerging from Levin’s proposal, said a Pentagon official. “It will be several months before any follow-on combat brigades, beyond what’s committed already, are available to deploy. That may allow for the wait-and-see that Levin wants.” Since McChrystal is believed to already favor the increase of Afghan security forces that Levin and Gates also want, the pause provided by brigade unavailability could provide a plausible way to forestall a decision on more troops while everyone sees how this consensus arrangement works out.

The question is going to turn on whether McChrystal believes he really can’t accomplish his mission without a new troop deployment — to such a degree he’d give the administration a politically tough request in the face of a rising Democratic congressional opposition and cratering public support. Another factor to watch: Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has sounded almost enthusiastic about a new deployment, despite the chairman’s traditional bureaucratic role of balancing the perceived needs of a war with the perceived needs of the entire U.S. military posture.

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