WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama faces key decisions in the coming weeks on the war in Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has reached its highest level since the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.
The Pentagon received last week an assessment of the war from Army General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, which is widely expected to set the stage for a request for more troops within weeks.
Washington has 62,000 troops in Afghanistan and that figure is expected to reach 68,000 later this year. Other nations, mainly NATO allies, have some 38,000 troops in the country.
Almost all NATO nations have been reluctant to send more troops to Afghanistan so any substantial increase will have to come from the United States.
The following are some possible courses of action Obama could choose to adopt:
Some analysts and commentators have argued that U.S. forces should withdraw from Afghanistan and stop devoting large amounts of resources to nation-building and fighting Taliban militants. Influential conservative columnist George Will voiced support for this option this month, arguing the United States should “do only what can be done from offshore”. But Obama is extremely unlikely to adopt this approach, at least for now.
Obama committed himself in March to a well-resourced broader counter-insurgency strategy. In the last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rejected the notion the war could be fought from a distance and dismissed talk of a U.S. military withdrawal as out of the question.
Obama could decide to maintain the U.S. troop level at around 68,000. That figure represents an increase of about 36,000 since the start of the year and the administration could decide it needs more time to evaluate how its strategy is working before making any changes. This option appears fairly unlikely as advisers to McChrystal have said he needs more troops. If McChrystal asks for them, it would be difficult for the administration not to provide at least some of those forces.
The administration could decide to add around 10,000 to 15,000 troops to provide more combat power and increase the training of Afghan forces. McChrystal’s predecessor, U.S. Army General David McKiernan, had already signaled he wanted some 10,000 extra troops in 2010 — including a division headquarters for U.S. forces when they take command of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan and an extra combat brigade.
With the insurgency still strong in the south, apparently regaining ground in the east and making new inroads in other parts of the country, that request may now be seen by military officers as the very minimum required. Another couple of brigades — between 6,000 and 10,000 troops — could now be deemed necessary. Politically, this option would provoke some opposition in Obama’s Democratic party, where unease about the war is growing, but probably not enough to make the administration change course.
Some analysts believe the Afghan war effort is still greatly under-resourced despite this year’s troop increases and requires a further big boost in military forces, diplomats, aid experts and money. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has advised McChrystal, has suggested there may be a need for three to nine more brigades — up to 45,000 more troops.
This option would be politically difficult for Obama, due to the unease in his own party and fatigue among the American public after eight years of war. It would also raise concerns among U.S. officials that Afghans will see NATO and U.S. forces as hostile occupiers if their presence is too large. Defense Secretary Gates has voiced this concern, although he has recently said he accepts McChrystal’s argument that Afghans’ perceptions will be driven more by how the troops behave than their numbers.
An increase of some sort appears most likely. The size of the increase will depend partly on what McChrystal requests and Obama’s own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and the U.S. political landscape.
Whichever option Obama chooses, it is likely to be accompanied by an effort to increase the size and quality of Afghanistan’s security forces. Obama could choose to make this the major focus of his next set of decisions on Afghanistan or just one element of the strategy.
Either way, such an effort would still require significant additional manpower from the U.S. military to train, mentor and partner with Afghan police and army units. Current plans foresee boosting the Afghan army to 134,000 and the police to 86,000 by 2010 but both NATO and U.S. officials have suggested Afghanistan should be aiming for a combined security force strength of about 400,000 personnel.