- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top military commander in Afghanistan is asking for up to 80,000 more American troops even as he warns that rampant government corruption there may prevent victory against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, according to U.S. officials briefed on his conclusions.

A still-secret document by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal that requests more troops is expected to be among the topics discussed Wednesday when President Barack Obama meets with his national security team to hash out a strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Even with additional troops, McChrystal concluded that corruption still could let terrorists turn Afghanistan back into a haven, according to officials at the Pentagon and White House.

His request outlines three options for additional troops — from as many as 80,000 to as few as 10,000 — but favors a compromise of 40,000 more forces, the officials said. They described it to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly.

Each option carries a high risk of failing, according to U.S. officials, although they said McChrystal concluded that fewer troops will bring the highest risks.

Obama said Tuesday that he will decide in “the coming weeks” on a war strategy and the troops needed to carry it out. Though he said military and security concerns are key parts of his decision, “another element is making sure we’re doing a good job in building capacity on the civilian side.”

“Our principal goal remains: Root out al-Qaeda and its extremist allies that can launch attacks against the United States or its allies,” the president said.

There are 67,000 American troops in Afghanistan, and 1,000 more are headed there by the end of December.

Allegations of widespread fraud in Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential election threaten to scuttle the international strategy to combat the burgeoning Taliban insurgency. The elections were marred by claims of ballot box stuffing and voter coercion.

On Tuesday, one U.S. military official said discussions within the Obama administration are ongoing about whether it is even possible to “surge” enough troops to overcome the corruption and how crucial a legitimate government in Afghanistan is to the overall war strategy. The official requested anonymity to describe the confidential discussions.

A decision on whether to hold a runoff election between Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and chief challenger Abdullah Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister, could come as early as Saturday.

Corruption can lead to citizens rejecting their government and, in some cases, aligning with rebel or insurgent groups. That in turn creates chaos that can lead to security problems and long-term instability.

Sending in additional troops would help secure Afghanistan but only in the short term, said Jay Parker, a Georgetown University foreign service professor and retired Army colonel. Troops alone can’t fix the corruption, the root of the problem, he said.

Now in its ninth year, the war in Afghanistan has been increasingly deadly for NATO forces and faces waning public support in the United States and allied nations. Obama has vowed to disrupt al-Qaida, the terrorist group behind the Sept. 11 attacks, whose leaders are believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s mountainous border region with Afghanistan.

Some of Obama’s top advisers, chief among them Vice President Joe Biden, want to target al-Qaida with missile-carrying unmanned spy planes and U.S. special forces strikes in Pakistan. But military officials and some diplomats argue that U.S. troops must continue to curb the extremist Taliban’s influence in Afghanistan to prevent future alliances with al-Qaeda.

McChrystal last month delivered his request for troops to top military leaders who handed it off to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Gates gave it to Obama days later.

The additional forces would not be deployed until early next year at the soonest, and it is not clear how they would be compiled. Two U.S. officials cited a range of sending between four and eight military brigades, which would mean a mix of Army and Marine units.

An Army brigade generally has between 3,500 and 5,000 soldiers, while a Marine expeditionary brigade could be built up to about 17,000 troops. However, sending a high number of forces would put more stress on troops who are already stretched thin from fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and probably would reduce the time they would get at home between deployments.

Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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