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Senators, Military Advisers Urge Obama to Double Afghan Forces

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan

U.S. Army soldiers from Gator Company, 2-12 Infantry, 4th Brigade run for cover from small arms fire following an attack on a transport convoy in the Pesh Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar Province August 4, 2009. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

President Barack Obama and top U.S. military commanders are under pressure from influential senators and civilian advisers to double the size of Afghan security forces, a commitment that would cost billions of dollars.

In private letters and face-to-face meetings, these supporters of mounting a stronger effort against the Taliban seek to boost the Afghan National Army and police to at least 400,000 personnel from the current 175,000.

"Any further postponement" of a decision to support a surge in Afghan forces will hamper U.S. efforts to quell an insurgency in its eighth year, Senators Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, and Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, wrote to the White House in a July 21 letter provided to Bloomberg News.

General Stanley McChrystal, the new U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, will recommend a speedier expansion of Afghan forces beyond current targets in an assessment he will give Defense Secretary Robert Gates and North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen by Aug. 14, according to a military official familiar with the review.

McChrystal has heard from civilian advisers who studied the war effort. The general won't suggest in the report how many more U.S. or NATO troops would be needed to train those Afghan forces or to boost the U.S. fighting effort, the official said.

In a meeting last week with Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the deputy national security adviser who oversees Afghan policy at the White House, Levin said a substantial expansion of Afghan forces is essential and that he would support funding for that, according to Levin spokeswoman Tara Andringa.

Earlier Letter

In a May 19 letter to Obama, 17 Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Levin, Lieberman, and Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate, urged a doubling of Afghan forces. They cautioned Obama against "taking an incremental approach" that "does not reflect the realities on the ground."

The U.S. already has agreed to fast-track the buildup of combined Afghan security forces to 134,000 Army personnel and 96,800 police -- 230,800 in all -- by 2011, according to U.S. Central Command. The Defense Department has requested $7.5 billion for fiscal year 2010 to fund the expansion.

More Afghan troops would bolster U.S. efforts to conduct joint operations, said Major General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander for NATO forces in eastern Afghanistan, where the U.S. is the lead nation in the coalition.

‘Greater Capacity'

"I do see a need for a greater capacity within the Afghan national security forces," Scaparrotti told reporters at the Pentagon today via video link from Afghanistan. "General McChrystal has stated we look at not only building their competency but building their capacity at a quicker pace."

Training and equipping 170,000 additional forces would balloon costs and require thousands more foreign military advisers, a commitment the Obama administration has thus far been reluctant to make.

Senators argued in their May letter that building Afghanistan's own forces is far cheaper than sending American soldiers -- making clear they would support administration requests for funds to train and equip Afghan troops.

“For the cost of a single American soldier in Afghanistan, it is possible to sustain 60 or more Afghans,â€

A similar message was drummed home by a dozen civilian national security experts in meetings with McChrystal and in a written report they gave him after a month in Afghanistan assessing ground conditions.

McChrystal asked the analysts from the secretary of defense's office, the Congressional Research Service, Washington research institutions, the European Union and a French think tank for help in preparing the strategic assessment.

Decision ‘Avoided'

Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who has sought an expansion of Afghan forces, said the commitment "is a decision that we have avoided making for far too long."

Retired Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert, predicts doubling the size of the Afghan Army would likely be a five-year, $25 billion proposition that would require 12,000 U.S. military trainers. Those troops would have to be reassigned from other duties.

The realization in Washington "of the scope and scale of what would be required in Afghanistan is frankly causing waves," said Nagl, a member of the Defense Policy Board that advises the secretary of defense. He is president of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

In February and March, Obama pledged 17,000 additional U.S. ground troops and 4,000 trainers, all of whom will be on the ground by the end of September, said Major John Redfield, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.

There are 62,000 U.S. troops and 40,500 non-U.S. NATO forces in Afghanistan, the highest number since the war to oust the Taliban began in 2001.

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