The top military commander in Afghanistan warns in a classified assessment of the war there that he needs additional troops within the next year or else the conflict “will likely result in failure.”
The grim assessment is contained in a 66-page report that the commander, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, submitted to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates on Aug. 30, and which is now under review by President Obama and his top national security advisers.
The disclosure of details in the assessment, first reported by the Washington Post and confirmed by a senior Obama administration official, coincided with new skepticism expressed by President Obama about sending any more troops into Afghanistan until he was certain that the strategy was clear. His remarks came as opposition to the 8-year-old war within his own party is growing.
General McChrystal’s view offered a stark contrast and the language he used was striking.
“Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the nearterm (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” General McChrystal states.
In his five-page commander’s summary, General McChrystal ends on a cautiously optimistic note: “While the situation is serious, success is still achievable.”
But throughout the document, General McChrystal warns that unless he is provided more forces and a robust counterinsurgency strategy, the war in Afghanistan is most likely lost. Pentagon and military officials involved in Afghanistan policy say General McChrystal is expected to propose a range of options for additional troops beyond the 68,000 American forces already approved, from 10,000 to as high as 45,000.
General McChrystal’s strategic assessment could well fuel the public anxiety over the war that has been fast increasing in recent weeks as American casualties have risen, allied commanders have expressed surprise at the Taliban’s fighting prowess, and allegations of ballot fraud Afghanistan’s recent presidential elections have escalated.
In a series of interviews on the Sunday morning talk shows, Mr. Obama expressed skepticism about sending more American troops to Afghanistan until he was sure his administration had the right strategy to succeed.
“Right now, the question is, the first question is, are we doing the right thing? Are we pursuing the right strategy?” Mr. Obama said on CNN. “When we have clarity on that, then the question is, O.K., how do we resource it?”
Mr. Obama said that he and his top advisers had not delayed any request for additional troops from General McChrystal because of the political delicacy of the issue or other domestic priorities.
“No, no, no, no,” Mr. Obama said when asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” whether General McChrystal had been told to sit on his request. Mr. Obama said his decision “is not going to be driven by the politics of the moment.”
In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Mr. Obama said his top priority was to protect the United States against attacks from Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. “Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we’ll figure out how to resource it,” he said. “We’re not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we’re automatically going to make Americans safe.”
Mr. Obama and his advisers have said they need time to absorb the assessment of the Afghanistan security situation that General McChrystal submitted three weeks ago — a separate report from the general’s expected request for forces — as well as the uncertainties created by the fraud-tainted Afghan elections.
“General McChrystal’s strategic assessment of the situation in Afghanistan is a classified pre-decisional document, intended to provide President Obama and his national security team with the basis for a very important discussion about where we are now in Afghanistan and how to best to get to where we want to be,” Geoff Morrell the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement Sunday night.
Mr. Morrell declined to comment on details of the assessment.
Until Sunday, details of General McChrystal’s classified report had not been made public. Members of Congress were briefed on the reports and allowed to read copies of it in secure offices on Capitol Hill, but the lawmakers were not allowed to take notes.
General McChrystal has publicly stated many of the conclusions in his report: emphasizing the importance of protecting civilians over just engaging insurgents, restricting airstrikes to reduce civilian casualties, and sharply expanding the Afghan security forces and accelerating their training.
The Afghan government has about 134,000 police officers and 82,000 soldiers, although many are poorly equipped and have little logistical support.
General McChrystal has also signaled that he will seek to unify the effort of American allies that operate in Afghanistan, and possibly to ask them to contribute more troops, money and training.
Mr. Obama elaborated on what could prompt him to send additional troops in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“If supporting the Afghan national government, and building capacity for their army, and securing certain provinces advances that strategy, then we’ll move forward,” he said.
“If it doesn’t, then I’m not interested in just being in Afghanistan for the sake of being in Afghanistan or saving face or, in some way, you know, sending a message that America is here for the duration,” Mr. Obama said.
“I have to exercise skepticism anytime I send a single young man or woman in uniform into harm’s way, because I’m the one who’s answerable to their parents if they don’t come home,” said Mr. Obama, in words that appeared aimed at calming Democrats and other critics who have objected to deepening the American combat involvement.
Military officers said Sunday that General McChrystal had effectively completed his formal request for forces, and was prepared to send the proposal up through his hierarchy for review by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of American forces in the Middle East; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
Only then would the issue be placed before the president, a process that Mr. Gates said last week should not be rushed. When General McChrystal took command in June, there already was a request pending from his predecessor for 10,000 troops beyond the forces approved by Mr. Obama.
Even in advance of forwarding any formal request for more forces, General McChrystal over recent weeks launched an effort across the military in Afghanistan to see whether troops were being used efficiently.
The “force optimization” study, which remains under way, would guide General McChrystal in redeploying or replacing forces to more effectively carry out his counterinsurgency strategy while remaining under the 68,000-troop cap now in place, according to officers involved.
According to senior military and Pentagon officials, General McChrystal challenged his commanders to find 10 percent savings in troop numbers by determining whether some personnel and even whole units were not “optimized” for the current counterinsurgency strategy.
This review already has found “perhaps a couple of thousand” troops who could be replaced or whose missions could be refocused, said one officer.
Other efforts by General McChrystal have been well-publicized: protecting the population from insurgents, restricting when warplanes drop bombs or missiles if civilians might be endangered, disrupting the drug trade and capturing or killing narcotics traffickers tied to the insurgency.
One little noticed order by the commander has sought to change the culture of the NATO headquarters in Kabul. He has banned alcohol there, bringing NATO personnel in line with a prohibition already in place for American military personnel.