Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly arrived top commander in Afghanistan, has concluded that the Afghan security forces will have to be far larger than currently planned if President Obama's strategy for winning the war is to succeed, according to senior military officials.
Such an expansion would require spending billions more than the $7.5 billion the administration has budgeted annually to build up the Afghan army and police over the next several years, and the likely deployment of thousands more U.S. troops as trainers and advisers, officials said.
Obama has voiced strong commitment to the ongoing Afghan conflict but has been cautious about making any additional military resources available beyond the 17,000 combat troops and 4,000 military trainers he agreed to in February. That will bring the total U.S. force to 68,000 by fall.
Instead, Obama has emphasized the need to pay equal attention to other aspects of the U.S. effort, including bolstering Afghanistan's economy and governance. Announcement of any additional military resources this year would raise questions from Congress and the American public about whether his overall strategy is working as intended.
McChrystal has not yet completed a 60-day assessment of the war due next month. But Defense Department officials here and in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said he has informed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in weekly updates, of the need to increase the Afghan force substantially, as was first reported yesterday on washingtonpost.com. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss findings that have not yet been made public.
The Afghan army is already scheduled to grow from 85,000 to 134,000, an expansion originally expected to take five years but now fast-tracked for completion by 2011. Several senior Pentagon officials indicated that an adequate size for the Afghan force may be twice the expanded number.
"There are not enough Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police for our forces to partner with in operations . . . and that gap will exist into the coming years even with the planned growth already budgeted for," said a U.S. military official in Kabul who is familiar with McChrystal's ongoing review.
Without significant increases, said another U.S. official involved in training Afghan forces, "we will lose the war." Gates would have to agree to any request from McChrystal for additional funding or troops, and recommend it to Obama.
U.S. commanders in southern Afghanistan told National Security Adviser James L. Jones late last month that additional Afghan forces are needed. But Jones made clear to them that Obama wants to give the nonmilitary elements of his strategy the time and resources to progress before considering new troop requests.
In a telephone interview Thursday from Italy, where he was traveling with Obama, Jones said, "It was never my intention to stifle anybody in the future, but to remind everyone that we have a strategy. . . . And it would be good to see how we're doing on all aspects of the strategy before we start focusing, as we always seem to do, on how more troops are going to solve the problem."
Jones and others agreed, however, that both reconstruction and competent governance cannot be achieved until the Afghan people are secure. The strategy calls for U.S. and Afghan forces to clear areas of the Taliban and then hold them. Commanders leading a Marine operation launched last week to drive Taliban forces from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan are already asking: "Where are the Afghan troops? Where's the economic plan? Where is the government?" Jones said.
About 4,000 Marines are involved in the current offensive, along with about 650 Afghan soldiers.
Despite concerns that too large a U.S. military presence would undermine efforts to eventually put the Afghans in charge of their own security, Jones said McChrystal is "perfectly within his mandate as a new commander to make the recommendation on the military posture as he sees it. We have to wait until he does that. There was never any intention on my visit [to Afghanistan] to say, 'Don't ever come in with a request or to put a cap on troops.' "
The Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Michael Mullen, told reporters Wednesday that the White House and the Pentagon are "committed to properly resourcing this endeavor."
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell declined to comment on any discussions Gates has had with McChrystal. "The secretary is waiting for General McChrystal to present his overall evaluation of the situation on the ground," Morrell said. Gates, he said, "will review it thoroughly and consult a number of people before he goes to the president."
The exact size of any request for additional money and troops will depend on how quickly U.S. commanders and Afghan government officials determine they can expand the Afghan forces and how much of the financial and personnel burden U.S. allies are willing to shoulder. The relatively high illiteracy rates in Afghanistan and the need for new training facilities and living quarters could also constrain efforts to accelerate the growth of the force. Another factor is the Afghan government's limited ability to pay for the larger force over the long term.
"It would not surprise me if the ceiling for the Afghan army request was raised," Jones said. "But what the new ceiling might be, and where the money comes from -- there's an international responsibility here, too. There are 47 countries" working in Afghanistan, he said, "and if there are additional expenses, it doesn't mean all of it has to come from the United States."
If Obama approves a request for more training resources, he will probably have to contend with sharp questions from Congress about whether his new strategy is working as intended. Many of his constituents on the left would like to see the Afghan war ended rather than expanded.
But McChrystal's "argument, and ultimately the argument of the Defense Department," will be that "if you only have one or two years to change the opinion of the people" of Afghanistan then "let's get on with it," one defense official said. McChrystal now has what the official called a "halo effect," similar to that of Gen. David H. Petraeus when he arrived in Iraq in early 2007 to preside over a major troop expansion and change in strategy that ultimately succeeded in turning the tide of that war.
Petraeus now heads U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan. "If you've got Stan's word . . . and Petraeus standing behind him" in requesting more resources, the official said, Obama can stress the need for a "marginal adjustment" based on advice from commanders on the ground.
The 21,000 deployments already approved for this year will not be completed until fall. If new deployments are approved, "generating that force, identifying it, training and organizing it will take time," the official said. That would probably extend their arrival into early 2010 and could mitigate any political problems the White House might foresee in authorizing additional troops.
Several officials said McChrystal's assessment of shortfalls in Afghanistan will be outlined in broad terms, citing the need to expand and train the Afghan force along with proposed solutions to make that happen.
In addition to trainers and advisers, he is also expected to outline organizational changes for U.S. troops and the need for enhanced language, intelligence and other skills.
McChrystal, who has spent most of his career in special operations units, is backing a proposal by Adm. Eric T. Olson, head of the U.S. Special Operations Command, to replace the current Navy and Air Force commanders of at least half of the 12 U.S. provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan with Special Operations officers who served previous tours in Afghanistan and have training in at least one of its two languages, Dari and Pashto.
Olson and McChrystal believe that the Navy and Air Force officers, who typically have backgrounds as pilots, navigators or ship commanders, lack the necessary experience. "We want to have the smartest and most culturally aware officers in charge of the reconstruction teams," said the senior military official in Kabul.
But the other services have been reluctant to give up the PRT mission, and Mullen and the four service chiefs are scheduled to meet next week to discuss the issue.