FORT WORTH, Texas – The United States and NATO need a new strategy to defeat the Taliban, the top commander in Afghanistan said Monday as he delivered a classified assessment that is widely seen as the groundwork for a fresh request to add more American forces next year.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal said the nearly 8-year-old war is winnable.
But his report is expected to be a blunt appraisal of the Taliban’s increasing tactical prowess and diminishing popular support in Afghanistan for both the foreign-led war effort and the fragile, corruption-riddled central government.
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious,” McChrystal said, and success “demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort.”
McChrystal didn’t seek more troops, but he’s expected to do so in a separate request in a couple weeks, two NATO officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter. NATO nations have repeatedly declined U.S. requests to send larger numbers of new troops or to lift restrictions on many of those now fighting in Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that the Obama administration will look closely at the “resources requests” expected to flow from McChrystal’s assessment. Gates said the review’s hard look at the U.S. military’s performance contains bright spots amid “gloom and doom.”
“We have been very explicit that General McChrystal should be forthright in telling us what he needs,” Gates said following a tour of the Texas factory where next-generation F-35 fighter jets are built and tested.
U.S. officials are bracing for a troop request above the 21,000 new American forces President Barack Obama committed to Afghanistan this year. That would force an unpleasant choice on Obama: Add more troops to Afghanistan just as the strain of the huge force commitments to the Iraq war begins to diminish, or risk losing the war he had argued the United States neglected in favor of Iraq.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president has not seen McChrystal’s review yet. Gibbs described the review as “an assessment of where we are and what in his assessment needs to change.”
“Any resource-specific resource recommendations, I’m told, will be made in the coming weeks, but are not a part of this report,” he said.
There is little appetite at the White House and in Congress for further expansion of a war that is backsliding despite nearly eight years of fighting and millions in development money.
U.S. and NATO commanders have said they do not have sufficient troops and support to expand the fight against a resilient and well-organized Taliban insurgency. But Gates noted his oft-repeated worry about placing too many forces in Afghanistan, a strategy that failed for the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
“I think there are larger issues,” Gates said. “We will have to look at the availability of forces; we will have to look at costs. There are a lot of different things we will have to look at.”
McChrystal’s recommendations were being sent up through U.S. Central Command commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, who would add their comments to it. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman would not say whether Gates had seen it yet, but said the report would not be made public.
In Brussels, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said the report would also be examined by NATO’s political and military leadership. He stressed it was an assessment by the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, “not a change of strategy.”
McChrystal’s report recommends focusing the U.S. and NATO counterinsurgency efforts on the Afghan population and less on militants, one of the NATO officials in Afghanistan said.
Last week, McChrystal said troops “must change the way that we think, act and operate” in newly released counterinsurgency guidance. McChrystal hopes to instill a new approach in troops to make the safety of villagers the top priority.
McChrystal said the supply of fighters in the Afghan insurgency is “essentially endless,” the reason violence continues to rise. He called on troops to think of how they would expect a foreign army to operate in their home countries, “among your families and your children, and act accordingly,” to try to win over the Afghan population.
Gates requested the report as a gut check following Obama’s announcement of a pared-down counterinsurgency strategy and the rare wartime firing of a top general this spring. McChrystal was sent to Afghanistan this summer to oversee the addition of 17,000 U.S. combat forces, part of a record U.S. commitment of 68,000 by the end of this year.
“While there is a lot of gloom and doom going around, I think that General McChrystal’s assessment will be a realistic one, and set forth the challenges we have in front of us,” Gates said. “At the same time, I think we have some assets in place and some developments that hold promise.”
The allied strategy in Afghanistan hinges on increasing the number of Afghan soldiers and police so U.S. forces can one day withdraw. Some 134,000 Afghan troops are to be trained by late 2011, but U.S. officials say that number will need to be greatly increased, an expansion that the U.S. will finance.
The deaths of two U.S. service members Monday in the south – raising the record death toll to 47 in August, the deadliest month of the eight-year war – underscored the escalating violence.
Concerned about the growing use of roadside bombs or “improvised explosive devices,” Gates said he wants to send additional armored vehicles and more surveillance equipment.
In Texas, Gates got a first look at the MC-12 Liberty, a relatively low-tech answer to the problem of airborne surveillance that is already flying in Iraq and will soon be sent to Afghanistan.