With 21,000 U.S. troops already arriving in Afghanistan this year, the speculation continues to mount about how many more forces a top U.S. commander might request for next year as he wraps up an eagerly anticipated assessment of the security situation in that country.
Upon taking command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in June, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was tasked by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to conduct a 60-day security assessment, which is expected to be presented to the Pentagon by early next month. Speculation about its conclusions and a possible request for even more U.S. troops has become rampant in Washington. News reports contain estimates of McChrystal's possibly requesting a range of 10,000 to 45,000 more troops in order to undertake a full counterinsurgency strategy to protect the Afghan population centers from the Taliban.
The speculation has taken on a life of its own at a time of mounting U.S. and NATO casualties in Afghanistan. July was the deadliest month for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan since they arrived in 2001 -- 76 coalition troops were killed in Afghanistan last month, 45 of them American.
Interest in a possible recommendation for more troops continued to grow after it was disclosed that Gates had secretly traveled to Belgium last week to consult with McChrystal and other top generals to receive an interim briefing on his conclusions. Gates has often expressed concern that expanding the size of the U.S. troop "footprint" in Afghanistan may be counterproductive if the Afghan population begins to perceive U.S. forces less as allies and more as occupiers.
In announcing the details of Gates' trip , Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters that Gates has not placed a cap on troop requests from his military commanders and the meeting in Brussels was no different.
The range of troop numbers McChrystal is said to be considering seems to have originated, in part, from recommendations he received from prominent military analysts at Washington think tanks that he invited to Afghanistan to contribute to the assessment.
"Let McChrystal Speak When He's Ready
At a Pentagon briefing Tuesday, Morrell expressed skepticism about the range of numbers and urged reporters to "pay less attention to these so-called insiders." He cautioned that some of the military analysts have returned to Washington with an idea about what "direction Gen. McChrystal is heading and they are confusing advice with whether or not Gen. McChrystal has actually embraced their advice.
"This assessment is still underway," he added. "It is still being worked on."
Anthony Cordesman, an ABC News consultant and military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who participated in the analysis for McChrystal's assessment, also downplays the speculation about troop levels because it distracts from the larger civil-military tack needed in Afghanistan.
"You are looking at an era of instant journalism, instant speculation, and talking heads and anything that gathers the interest of the public is open for and analysis and guesswork when we should probably just let McChrystal speak when he's ready," Cordesman said.
Fueled by the Obama administration's decision to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year and new troop commitments made by the outgoing Bush administration , the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan stands at 62,000 and, by year's end, will rise to 68,000. At the beginning of this year, there were 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
McChrystal's predecessor, Gen. David McKiernan, had already estimated that 10,000 more troops might be needed for next year. Gates told Congress in April that he would be hesitant to approve that request until he saw how the administration's new strategy in Afghanistan was proceeding "before I would contemplate forwarding a recommendation for additional troops to the president."
Although it's still too early to gauge the impact of the 21,000 additional troops sent to Afghanistan this year, both Gates and McChrystal have said that progress on security must occur there within the next 12 to 18 months or risk the loss of support of U.S. public opinion.
GOP Senator Warns Against 'Rumsfeld'-ing Afghanistan
Even in the absence of a troop recommendation, there appears to be bipartisan support for increasing the number of troops in Afghanistan.
Appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" this weekend, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said, "We made mistakes in Iraq. Let's not 'Rumsfeld' Afghanistan, let's not do this thing on the cheap," a reference to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's favoring the use of a smaller force in Iraq before President George W. Bush ordered an influx of additional troops that became known as "the surge."