The top US military officers now agree that more troops are needed to win the conflict in Afghanistan, leaving President Obama with potentially less wiggle room in making a decision about deepening America's involvement there.
This week, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, received a troop request in a secret meeting in Germany with Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, whose recently submitted strategy review concluded that a larger US force is necessary to win the counterinsurgency there. That request will arrive on Mr. Obama's desk in coming days, bringing debate on the way forward in Afghanistan to a head.
Should Mr. Obama turn down the request from his commander on the ground, he may risk alienating a military that is now publicly in favor of sending more troops. Earlier this week, Gen. David Petraeus voiced support for a troop increase in Afghanistan. General Petraeus oversaw the surge of forces in Iraq in 2007 that is widely held to be a counterinsurgency success story.
In a bid to keep options open, Obama administration officials have stressed that the military's perspective is "just one input" of many. Many of these officials have serious concerns about escalating the conflict in Afghanistan and question whether resourcing a counterinsurgency campaign would serve American interests. Vice President Joe Biden, for one, has backed an alternative counterterrorism strategy that would involve more targeted attacks on Al Qaeda and fewer troops.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a key player in the discussions, seems to be on the fence, so far.
Today's debate echoes the one that preceded the surge of forces in Iraq three years ago, but this time there is more consensus within the military, making Obama's situation more difficult in some ways. In 2007, then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld opposed sending more forces to Iraq, but some of the service chiefs were also ambivalent. They were worried that a troop surge might not work and would push an exhausted military too far.
By contrast, while there's concern today about stress on the military after eight years of war, top military officers largely agree about a troop surge. Some of them also fear that a loss in Afghanistan would demoralize the military in the long term.
Last week, Admiral Mullen said during a Senate panel hearing that the mission in Afghanistan would "probably" need more forces. Military sources said the Joint Chief of Staffs chairman's statement reflected general consensus among the heads of the military branches, though it is not clear if there is consensus on the number.
The issue of sending more troops to Afghanistan has become such a hot potato that the administration tried to stave off the troop request – one reason McChrystal didn't include the request with his Afghanistan strategy review. The commander is expected to request between 20,000 and 40,000 troops.
Pentagon officials Friday were mum on just when McChrystal's troop request would reach Washington. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said he didn't want to speculate on when it would be in the defense secretary's hands. "This is not a typical RFF," he said, using the military acronym for a request for forces. "This is an extraordinary document."