The top U.S. general in Afghanistan wants a new focus on strengthening and partnering with Afghan security forces “down to the platoon level” and will review the current use of informal “tribal” militia for fear they could lead to the resurgence of warlordism, U.S. military officials and civilian specialists say.
As U.S. troops ended their deadliest month in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal on Monday gave the Pentagon and NATO a long-awaited reassessment of strategy in the 8-year-old war. While it did not ask for a specific number of additional U.S. troops, a U.S. military official familiar with the assessment said a request for “necessary resources” to implement the strategy would come soon. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to give U.S. and NATO leaders time to consider the review.
Outside advisers have recommended 20,000 to 30,000 additional American military personnel in Afghanistan on top of the buildup to 68,000 troops by the end of the year, but that number may be difficult for the Pentagon, White House and Capitol Hill to digest. Two more U.S. soldiers died Monday, bringing to 47 the U.S. toll for August.
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity effort,” Gen. McChrystal said Monday in a press release.
Bruce Riedel, who headed the administration’s Afghanistan-Pakistan review earlier this year, said “there is a huge debate starting behind the scenes” on how many U.S. troops are necessary to turn around the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have made significant gains.
“How big do we want to do this?” Mr. Riedel said. “The generals will want more but face a reluctant Democratic Party and a very anxious White House.”
While some analysts have suggested another 20,000 to 30,000 troops, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will be “more conservative,” Mr. Riedel said. “They really need more trainers but there aren’t enough, so they will take combat troops and turn them into trainers,” he said.
Mr. Gates told Bloomberg TV Monday that he had asked Gen. McChrystal to assess “the implications of significant additional forces in terms of the foreign footprint in Afghanistan, whether the Afghans will see this as us becoming more of an occupier or their partner and how do you differentiate those and how do you make sure you don’t lose their confidence in us as their partner.”
“While there is a lot of gloom and doom going around, I think that Gen. McChrystal’s assessment will be a realistic one, and set forth the challenges we have in front of us,” Mr. Gates told reporters earlier.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters that the McChrystal assessment is on its way to President Obama but that at “each step along the way, commanders and policymakers will add their comments to the strategic assessment that Gen. McChrystal has made, understanding that I think there’s broad agreement that, for many years, our effort in Afghanistan has been under-resourced - politically, militarily, economically.”
The U.S. military official told The Times that one “dramatic shift from the past” was the importance Gen. McChrystal attached to partnership with Afghan security forces.
“The key is partnering, partnering, partnering … partnering all the way down to platoon level with the [Afghan national army] which is bold, and distinctly new,” the official said.
During a recent trip to assess a community policing pilot program in Wardak province west of Kabul, Gen. McChrystal pledged to “grow the Afghan National Security Forces [ANSF] more quickly.”
Maj. David Buffaloe, a military planner for the U.S.-led coalition, said that meant coalition mentors “living, planning, operating, training — everything with the ANSF — at all levels.”
While Gen. McChrystal did not include outright troop requests in his assessment, he will make “a statement of [what he would] need” to accomplish his strategy, Maj. Buffaloe said. “If we’ve got a strategy that calls for more troops, it would be nice to actually get them.”
Concerns have risen in the United States about sending more Americans to support a government that is widely viewed as corrupt and inefficient.
Stephen Biddle, a military specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations who helped devise the surge strategy in Iraq and was among the civilian advisers on Afghanistan, said the Afghan government must reduce corruption and deliver more services.
“The degree of improvement we need is that the Afghan government has to be perceived as superior to the Taliban,” Mr. Biddle said. “Nobody can guarantee success,” he said. He called the surge “a high difficulty dive” but added, “I don’t think it’s hopeless.”
Two military planners told The Times that the military assessment included unprecedented civilian participation, incorporating the advice of the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other governmental bodies. The result is a greater emphasis on coordination between military and civilian surges and a focus on governance equal to that on security.
“Security operations will now focus on supporting governance [as opposed to just targeting insurgents],” said Lt. Col. Shaun O’Connor, a military planner from New Zealand. “There’s greater opportunity for governance in [eastern Afghanistan], so a lot more effort will be expended in terms of governance and development. The international community will have to contribute more money in that vein.”
Civilians teams of three or four people from USAID, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the State Department are expected to arrive as early as October and embed within the military in high-risk districts.
“I think they’re looking for different perspectives because the situation is highly unique,” said Matt Sherman, civilian political adviser to the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division.
Another official familiar with the assessment said many of its themes had been presaged in a set of guidelines Gen. McChrystal published last week.
The guidance told U.S. troops to focus 95 percent of their time and energy on protecting and building relationships with the Afghan people. “Earn the support of the people and the war is won,” wrote Gen. McChrystal, “regardless of how many militants are killed or captured.”
He said the supply of insurgent fighters is “effectively endless,” and that the conventional military response to insurgent attacks was like that of “the bull that repeatedly charges a matador’s cape — only to tire and eventually be defeated by a much weaker opponent.”
On Sunday, Gen. McChrystal issued a directive requiring all coalition personnel to “drive in ways that respect the safety and well-being of the Afghan people.”
Gen. McChrystal also will review the use of small tribal security forces in areas where other Afghan and international forces haven’t been able to defeat the Taliban, specifically in the southern and eastern regions of the country.
“The thing we have to watch is community-based security,” said one of the unnamed U.S. military officials. “Call it what you will: Tribal, village or community patrols are important. … I think the preference would be for a professional army and Afghan police corps.”
He said tribal security forces supported by the U.S. are interim measures and “have to be closely monitored because they are not as professional and accountable to the central government and can therefore approach the kind of warlordism that would further alienate the population.”
The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has relied on support from powerful ethnic warlords to pacify parts of the country and help him win re-election. Mr. Karzai is leading in the vote tally for the Aug. 20 elections but has not achieved the 50 percent necessary to avoid a runoff with top challenger Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister.
• Shaun Waterman and Barbara Slavin contributed to this report. Jessica Weinstein reported from Afghanistan.