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Afghanistan Troop Request May Contain Political Fail-Safe


Gen. Stanley McChrystal (defenselink.mil)

A forthcoming request from the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for additional resources for the war is likely to take the form of a palette of options, not simply an appeal for more troops, according to Obama administration officials. Combined with a recent congressional proposal to delay a troop request, the options request might allow President Obama to avoid the politically thorny question of ordering a second escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year.

Administration officials said that the widespread expectation within the administration was that Gen. Stanley McChrystal would present Obama with a series of options for how to resource the U.S. effort to combat the deterioration of security in Afghanistan, along with a discussion of the merits and drawbacks of each. Among the options anticipated by the officials: an accelerated increase in Afghan security forces; the transference of U.S. or Afghan troops to relatively volatile parts of the country; substituting U.S. support troops for U.S. combat troops while holding overall troop levels static; or increasing U.S. troops in total. The officials would not speak for attribution, citing the sensitivity of the internal Afghanistan debate.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

McChrystal, according to an aide, is finalizing his resource request this week, and the aide cautioned that it was unclear what precise format the resource request will take. During this same week, Obama will decide whether he agrees with the scope of a still-secret strategy review that McChrystal submitted to the administration earlier this month. A Pentagon official said that an ultimate decision on sending McChrystal additional resources will be completed within a month’s time.

Pending Obama’s approval of McChrystal’s strategy review, the subsequent resource request will present “several different ways forward, with [a presentation of] the risks and benefits of each,” said one U.S. official. “It wouldn’t neccessarily be ‘here is the way to do it,’ but rather really hashing through a combination of approaches for what makes sense.”

That approach may have a political benefit. Obama is in a tight spot: public and Congressional support for the Afghanistan war is diminishing, and Obama already ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in March. A recent Washington Post poll found only 24 percent of respondents backed a second such increase. Yet directly turning down a request for more troops from the commander chosen by the administration just three months ago to turn the war’s fortunes around is perilous as well.

“It has become a trope of American politics that a way of supporting the troops is to do what the troop commander wants from the field,” said Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network, a progressive security organization. Presenting Obama with options about how to resource the war is “substantively the right thing to do,” she said, but also allows Obama “to skip over that trope and move to the question of what the right strategy is and how do we implement that approach.” (The official said that it was doubtful that the administration had politics in mind by expecting McChrystal to present Obama with a palette of options, but conceded, “I suppose you could say it’s a benefit.”)

Recent polls have found that support for the Afghanistan war is cleaving along partisan lines. Almost 70 percent of Democrats say the war is not worth its costs, while an almost equal percentage of Republicans contend it is. Accordingly, several prominent Democratic politicians, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) warned the administration last week that congressional support for another troop increase is thin. In an interview Monday with Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.), the powerful chairman of the defense appropriations subcommittee, came out against a prospective increase. While Obama does not need the committee to approve a troop increase, he will need to go through the subcommittee to approve next year’s defense budget, of which the Afghanistan war will be a major component.

Similarly, a group of conservative foreign policy analysts and former Bush administration officials wrote an open letter last week calling on Obama to order more troops to Afghanistan and implicitly tying continued GOP support for the administration’s war effort to the option. “There is no middle course,” the letter states. “We will not support half-measures that repeat the errors of the past.”

Against that backdrop, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Friday that the Obama administration should accelerate the fielding of capable Afghan security forces “before we consider whether to increase U.S. combat forces above the levels already planned for the next few months.” Some inside the administration view the proposal as a consensus position that might delay a decision on U.S. troop increases.

“There maybe some room for common ground as it will be several months before any follow-on combat brigades beyond what’s committed already are available to deploy,” said a Pentagon official. “That may allow for the wait-and-see that Levin wants.” Andrew Krepinevich, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said it was difficult to determine how many uncommitted combat brigades were available for additional use in Afghanistan, as the measurement depends on “what deployment standard is being used,” such as ordering soldiers back into combat without the required year’s worth of time at home or other factors that impact combat effectiveness.

An aide to McChrystal, who did not wish to be quoted, did not wish to comment on Levin’s proposal, but said that accelerating the deployment of Afghan security forces was a top priority for the general.

Much remains unsettled in the debate over Afghanistan. One official said it was still unclear where several key players in the administration stood on a prospective increase. Among the key swing votes is that of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has expressed concern about overly Americanizing the war, out of fear of alienating the Afghan people. But in a press conference on Sept. 3 he indicated that McChrystal has compellingly argued to him that the real determinant of Afghan support is not troop size but U.S. conduct in prosecuting the war. McChrystal favors a counterinsurgency strategy that places protecting the population from violence as the key criterion of mission success.

Still, the defense secretary is said to be attuned to the political climate of rising skepticism about the U.S.’s ability to reverse its fortunes in the war. “Gates lives in the real world and understands the political realities the president faces,” said a Pentagon official, “so preparing on option for a moderate increase down the line, when troops would be available, depending on how things go for the next six months, may be the way ahead.”

Steve Biddle, a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations and an adviser to McChrystal’s recent strategy review, said that he did not know what McChrystal would ultimately recommend or how the general would present the administration with its resource requests. He said it would be perilous for McChrystal to try and game out U.S. politics in the request itself. “In the Bush administration, too many senior military advisers tried to assess what was politically advantageous, and it led to a near catastrophe in Iraq,” Biddle said. “It would be a mistake for Gen. McChrystal to do that here.”

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