WASHINGTON – The U.S. commander in Afghanistan has prepared a request for more troops to serve as advisers for Afghan military units, a sign that Washington and its allies are trying to speed up the hand-over of combat operations to the Afghans as they prepare to withdraw, U.S. and NATO officials said.
The stronger emphasis on training may keep more U.S. troops on bases next year and help reduce U.S. military casualties before presidential elections next November. President Barack Obama’s Afghan policy is already an issue.
Marine Gen. John R. Allen, who took command in Afghanistan last summer, wants 1,700 more military personnel – mid-level officers and senior enlisted troops leading hundreds of new adviser teams to be assigned beginning next year to Afghan units battling the Taliban insurgency, the officials said.
It will take time to identify the right mix of troops, and Allen’s request has yet to be submitted to the Pentagon. The move is part of a major retooling of Afghanistan strategy under discussion by Obama and his national security team, aimed at ensuring Afghan forces are ready to take on the militants by 2014, when the last U.S. combat units are scheduled to pull out.
Allen and other senior U.S. military officers generally support the idea of pushing the Afghan army into the lead sooner. Aides say it makes sense to test how well it performs while large numbers of U.S. troops still can come to Afghan soldiers’ assistance if necessary.
Moreover, support for keeping combat troops in Afghanistan for three more years has withered in other North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries. This has added impetus to the White House drive to speed up the transition to Afghan forces.
In some ways, Obama is attempting to follow the model he set in Iraq, when he changed the U.S. military mission to emphasize training of Iraqi forces. In August 2010, he announced that the Iraqi military had lead responsibility for the nation’s security. U.S. casualties in Iraq have plummeted, and the last U.S. combat troops are scheduled to be withdrawn next month.
“Our top priority right now is building” the Afghan army and police, said a senior U.S. general involved in the discussion. But “it’s a perilous path we’re on right now. … The Afghans can’t carry the load by themselves.”
Obama has ordered the withdrawal of 30,000 U.S. troops by September. That will leave about 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.