High end of troop request for Afghanistan: 60,000-plus

Gen. Stanley McChrystal included an option to send at least 60,000 more US troops to Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A US Chinook helicopter brings more troops to Cop Cherokee base in Afghanistan's Kherwar district, October 3.
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Gen. Stanley McChrystal's troop request for Afghanistan includes an option to send at least 60,000 additional American forces to buttress the war effort there – a higher troop request than previously known.

General McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, included in his classified troop request a "menu" of options, with the high number thought to be about 40,000 reinforcements. But Obama administration officials are confirming privately that the high end is more than 60,000.

The higher number, reported first by The Wall Street Journal on Friday, may be McChrystal's straw man – likely to be knocked down but useful as a negotiation point in getting more troops than he might otherwise. Some experts, though, say the military is not prone to playing a numbers game to try to hedge its bets.

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"The military doesn't do that as far as I know," says Karin von Hippel, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. McChrystal "was doing a very realistic assessment."

The White House debate over how to move forward in Afghanistan continues Friday, with President Obama's top national security team meeting for a fourth time.

The deliberative approach stems in part from "surge" opponents, who question whether thousands of additional forces can achieve US aims there. Vice President Joe Biden, for example, is reportedly urging Mr. Obama to consider a narrower strategy designed only to defeat Al Qaeda and not to commit to a counterinsurgency model requiring so many additional American troops. His arguments, or those akin to them, seem to be swaying many in the White House, who are reading books on lessons of the Vietnam War. A decision is still a week or so away, say administration officials.

The troop request submitted to the White House this week is an "analytical document" that offers Obama a range of options but that nevertheless makes one specific recommendation, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell Wednesday.

But Mr. Morrell made an important distinction. McChrystal's war assessment and troop request are based on the assumption that the US should employ a counterinsurgency warfare model. If the White House abandons that approach, it could try to skirt the criticism that Obama is not listening to his field general.

"So if the decisions that are made in the coming weeks are different from [the assumption that the US is pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy], there can be adjustments made to the request," Morrell said.

If the president does decide to send more US troops, it is far from clear when any of them could arrive. Although Army officials have said a handful of brigades – which are 3,500 to 5,000 troops each – are ready to go by year's end, the Pentagon would need many months to muster 40,000 troops, let alone 60,000.

During his confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill this summer, McChrystal said he would need about 18 months to show progress on the ground. The Defense Department's inability to field that many troops until next summer means it would likely take McChrystal longer than that to show progress.

In all, about 278,000 troops are in Afghanistan, including 68,000 American troops, 40,000 allied troops, and 170,000 Afghan National Security Forces, including police and army.

Gen. Dan McNeill, a previous US commander of forces in Afghanistan, said two years ago that to mount a counterinsurgency properly, a country the size of Afghanistan needs a force of about 400,000.

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The renewed deliberations over strategy indicate they have Obama's ear.

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