The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan is examining whether some support personnel could be replaced by combat forces as a way to increase America's war fighting capacity without requesting a major addition of new troops.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal is facing conflicting pressures as he prepares a major strategy review to be delivered to the White House in the coming weeks. A group of outside advisers has recommended that he request as many as 21,000 more troops, but Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that the general would not seek additional troops at this time.
There are currently 62,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with 6,000 more expected to arrive by the end of the year. Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon briefing: "We need some time to see what the impact of all that is" before additional troop increases are considered.
He said that Gen. McChrystal is free to ask for whatever resources he feels he needs, but Mr. Gates doesn't expect a request on troop strength in the coming report.
A military source involved in Afghanistan planning told The Washington Times that Gen. McChrystal is exploring as much as a 12 percent cut in certain manpower slots, a move that would allow him to request more combatants without substantially increasing the overall troop commitment. The source spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell confirmed Thursday that Gen. McChrystal was examining support staff levels.
"Among the things Secretary Gates asked General McChrystal to look at [in his strategy review] was the staff he was inheriting to make sure all his personnel were being used to maximum effect. If we had the means of getting people from behind desks and out into the field, we should take a close look at that," Mr. Morrell told The Times.
Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, Gen. McChrystal's spokesman, said in an e-mail to The Times that there had been "a direction to identify where such cuts could be made, rather than a decision or direction to actually reduce the force."
"Resource requirements across the theater currently are being analyzed here, but there have been no final decisions or recommendations on numbers of personnel or other resourcing issues."
However, there is a widespread feeling among military specialists that more combat troops are needed to successfully carry through the broader counterinsurgency mission unveiled in March.
Last week, in an interview with editors and reporters of The Times, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he favored the initial Afghanistan surge that began in February.
"We needed to get troops in order to have an impact, particularly this year, because the Taliban's getting tougher, better organized, more sophisticated, better tactics, better intelligence, all those kinds of things. If we delayed that, we would miss a significant period of time to engage them."
A former defense official close to the strategic assessment team of outside specialists told The Times that those advisers are recommending four to six new combat brigades, or up to 21,000 troops.
The advisers included such think-tank heavyweights as Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, who helped President George W. Bush devise the "surge" strategy for Iraq; and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Also in the group are Fred Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who also helped develop the Iraq surge strategy, and Andrew Exum, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and is a scholar at the Center for a New American Security.
Mr. Morrell said Thursday that there is a big difference between the advice of outside specialists and the recommendations of the commanding general in Afghanistan.
"While their participation I am sure is greatly appreciated by Gen. McChrystal and his team, there is a clear distinction between dispensing advice and the commanding general taking that advice. And given that Gen. McChrystal is still very much in the throes of this assessment, no one, especially these outside advisers, is in a position to know what he is thinking or is about to decide.
It is simply premature to draw conclusions about what he will present to the defense secretary."
Reached by e-mail Thursday, Mr. Exum wrote, "Any and all recommendations on resources were pending a thorough troop-to-task analysis, which was to take place after we departed Kabul.
"But the assessment was commissioned by the NATO secretary-general and the U.S. secretary of Defense. And if they do not want the commander's recommendation on resources to be included in the report, that is certainly their prerogative."
Mr. Biddle declined to comment to The Times. But in an in-house interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Biddle let it be known that he favors more troops, just as he did for Iraq.
"I certainly continue to think that either course of action - staying or withdrawing - has important problems," he said. "On balance, staying is the better course, but only if we're prepared to resource it correctly. The weakest argument is staying and under-resourcing it. That creates the opportunity to lose slowly, which is the worst of the three possible approaches."
He added: "One of the central issues for near-term strategy in Afghanistan is, even if the administration substantially increases the number of troops they want in this theater, it's going to be awhile before they can build up to those counts. So for a while to come, we're going to be stuck with too few troops to provide security everywhere."
After returning from Afghanistan, Mr. Cordesman said at a July 29 press conference that the path to victory would require more U.S. brigades, a doubling in the strength of the Afghan army, and reforms to the government.
"We, the United States, are going to have to provide the resources if we want to win," Mr. Cordesman said. "Most of the incremental resources will have to come from us. This means very substantial budget increases, it means more brigade combat troops and it means financing both the civilian effort needed in the field and a near doubling of Afghan national security forces."
The source involved in Afghan planning said he understood that Gen. McChrystal was leaning toward asking his commander, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and Mr. Gates for more combat troops. This source said Gen. McChrystal's staff is now conducting a "troop-to-task" analysis to see if the reinforcements are necessary.
After the outside specialists briefed Gen. McChrystal, he made an unannounced trip Aug. 2 to Brussels to confer with Mr. Gates.
A new troop request, on top of the 21,000 additional troops already approved by Mr. Obama, could touch off a battle between the Army and the White House. Army headquarters at the Pentagon is working to increase rest time for soldiers beyond one year before they redeploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. Having to come up with thousands of more troops would disrupt those plans.
Prior to his remarks Thursday, Mr. Gates appeared to be preparing for a new Afghan escalation. He announced in late July that he thinks the ongoing Iraq troop withdrawal can be accelerated. He also announced a temporary increase of 22,000 men and women in the active Army.
"I expect the Army to be able to find the new people," said Baker Spring, a defense analyst at the Heritage Foundation. "In my mind, the more serious problem is how the Department of Defense is going to pay for the increase in overall personnel levels and a still-high operational tempo with a topline budget for defense in 2011 that is roughly $70 billion less than in 2010."
The administration's five-year budget plan shows overall defense spending dropping from $692.7 billion in 2010 to $620.5 billion in 2011. It is banking on reduced war costs in Iraq to achieve the reduction.
The White House is cool toward any further Afghan escalation.
Mr. Cordesman rebuked the administration for making dismissive remarks about a troop increase before it sees Gen. McChrystal's report. National Security Adviser James L. Jones said on Sunday's talk shows that it is too soon to consider such increases.
"Quite frankly, it would probably be just as well if people in the National Security Council and the White House made their judgments after they get the assessment they need rather than try to resource constrain an assessment in a way that can lose the war," he said.
Eli Lake contributed to this report.