The Bush administration, in the midst of a wide review of its war strategy in Afghanistan, is likely to recommend soon to the incoming Obama administration that the U.S. push for further expansion of the Afghan army as the surest path to an eventual U.S. withdrawal, the Associated Press has learned.
It’s too late in President Bush’s tenure for a major change of direction in Afghanistan, but the White House wants to produce a kind of road map for the next administration.
The strategy review, which began in September amid increasing militant violence and a rising U.S. and allied death toll, is being coordinated at the White House and is expected to be presented by December. Defense officials would discuss emerging conclusions only on the condition of anonymity because it is not yet completed.
The Bush administration is likely to endorse fulfilling a standing request by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan, for about 20,000 additional U.S. troops in 2009. But it has concluded that the emphasis increasingly should be on Afghan forces taking the lead.
A chief advocate of focusing more on speeding the training and equipping of a bigger Afghan army is Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said last week that it represents the long-term answer in Afghanistan.
Mr. Gates also has emphasized limiting the depth of U.S. military involvement in a country that has ground down foreign armies over centuries of conflict.
“We will be making a terrible mistake if this ends up being called America’s war,” Mr. Gates said Oct. 31 after presiding at a ceremony in Tampa, Fla., where Gen. David Petraeus was installed as head of U.S. Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes Afghanistan as well as Iraq.
“What I would like to see, and, I think, what everybody would like to see, is the most rapid possible further expansion of the Afghan military forces because this needs to be an Afghan war, not an American war and not a NATO war,” Mr. Gates told reporters.
President-elect Barack Obama, who has called Afghanistan an “urgent crisis,” said in a speech on Oct. 22 that “it’s time to heed the call” from Gen. McKiernan for more U.S. troops. Mr. Obama said he would send at least two or three additional combat brigades. One combat brigade typically has 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers.
There are now about 31,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Another brigade is scheduled to arrive in January; beyond that, decisions on the size and timing of any further additions will be up to Mr. Obama.
Under a plan adopted by the U.S. and Afghan governments in September, the Afghan army is to grow to 134,000 soldiers by 2014, and it’s not yet clear how many more soldiers the Bush administration’s review will recommend.
The previous goal was 80,000, and the actual number in uniform now is about 68,000, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Cone, who heads U.S. efforts to train and equip the Afghan security forces.
In a telephone interview Friday from Kabul, Gen. Cone said some have argued that Afghanistan might need a security force of 400,000 to 600,000, but there are legitimate questions about whether such a poor country could sustain that force.
Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star Army general, wrote after a July visit to Afghanistan that one of the keys to winning in Afghanistan is expanding the Afghan army to 200,000 soldiers.