From the Fact Check Desk: Did McKiernan’s Troop Requests Just Sit on Bush White House Desks?

Oct 22, 2009 7:50pm

Jake Tapper and Luis Martinez report:

Responding to Vice President Cheney’s accusation that President Obama is “dithering” by taking time to assess a new strategy in Afghanistan, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs earlier today said  “the vice president was for seven years not focused on Afghanistan. Even more curious given the fact that an increase in troops sat on desks in this White House, including the vice president's, for more than eight months, a resource request filled by President Obama in March.”

Is that accurate?

It’s a bit more nuanced than that.

The troop requests to which Gibbs referred were made by then-Gen. David McKiernan. McKiernan started off making individual requests for brigades, and that list kept growing.

Officials from that time say that demands in Iraq prevented the Bush administration from fulfilling the requests until just before Bush left office. (Prioritizing troops to Iraq over those to Afghanistan is, of course, a choice.)

In his first interview after being fired by Defense Secretary Gates over the summer, McKiernan told the Washington Post about his appointment to command ISAF troops in Afghanistan in June 2008: "There was a saying when I got there: If you're in Iraq and you need something, you ask for it. If you're in Afghanistan and you need it, you figure out how to do without it."

In retrospect McKiernan’s troop requests ultimately added up to roughly 30,000 more troops, a combination of combat units and support troops.

Throughout most of 2008, the Bush administration tried to get NATO countries to fill that gap, though they had to have known that would be a challenge.  By the late summer, 2008 Bush administration officials realized NATO wasn’t going to come through. 

In September 2008 that led the Pentagon to order 2,000 Marines to replace Marines sent to Afghanistan in January as a one-time deployment.   At the same time, it also ordered in the first of the additional four combat brigades that McKiernan had requested.  This unit of 3,700 soldiers would arrive in January, 2009 and had been originally scheduled to deploy to Iraq.

In December 2008, President Bush sent 2,800 troops to Afghanistan from an aviation brigade that McKiernan had also requested.

So as McKiernan’s outstanding requests for more forces accumulated throughout 2008 to roughly 30,000 soldiers, President Bush sent at least 6,800 troops – months and months after the requests had come in.

By March, President Obama had ordered 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan – which can be seen as roughly the outstanding balance of McKiernan’s original request.

So Gibbs’s claim that for “eight months” McKiernan’s request for troops “sat on desks” isn’t accurate.

But those request weren’t exactly being met with the urgency Cheney has suddenly decided President Obama must meet, lest he be seen as “dithering.”

– Jake Tapper and Luis Martinez

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