WASHINGTON – U.S. officials plan to add as many as 14,000 combat troops to the American force in Afghanistan by sending home support staff and under-utilized soldiers and replacing them with infantry units, Defense officials said.
The plan represents a key step in a drive to beef up U.S.-led forces as the Obama administration presses to counter Taliban gains and demonstrate progress amid crumbling public support for the war effort.
Forces that could be swapped out include units assigned to noncombat duty, such as guards or lookouts, or those on clerical and support squads.
“It makes sense to get rid of the clerks and replace them with trigger-pullers,” said one Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans have not been announced.
The changes will not offset the potential need for additional troops in the future, but could reduce the size of any request from Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and allied commander, officials said.
The plan reflects the view that after eight years of war, much of the military bureaucracy that has built up no longer serves a useful purpose. Services performed by soldiers that are no longer considered crucial could be outsourced to contractors or eliminated, officials said.
However, the change is likely to increase the number of private contractors in the war zone, a source of controversy in Iraq and a growing issue in Afghanistan.
McChrystal this week submitted a broad assessment of the Afghan war effort, calling the situation there “serious.” Details of the assessment remain secret, but officials said it did not contain a request for more troops. Such a request could be submitted in coming weeks.
The planned changes in the U.S. troop mix are part of what military officials call a “force optimization” review, a critical midstep between the assessment and a request for additional troops, designed to ensure the existing force is operating as efficiently as possible.
Defense officials said they did not know how many positions and jobs might be eliminated until the review was completed. But two officials estimated the total could be between 6,000 and 14,000 troops.
The review will scour the U.S. roster for situations where several people perform the same job or for service members who are considered less than fully utilized – working just a six-hour shift, for example.
Most of the dozens of combat outposts and outlying bases in Afghanistan have soldiers or Marines assigned to gates or guard towers. But the Pentagon official said those troops could be moved into more valuable duty.
“They just stare out from the tower. So let’s bring in contractors,” the Pentagon official said. “Now you can have a thousand more troops in the field,” the official said.
Any needed job left vacant could be filled by hiring local Afghans or using military contractors, officials said.
Critics have charged that the military has relied too heavily on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, handing over too many critical responsibilities to outsiders.