KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 31, 2009 -- The new commander of international troops in Afghanistan delivered a sweeping review of how the United States fights the war today, emphasizing a shift from fighting the Taliban to protecting the population, rooting out corruption, nearly doubling Afghan security forces and transforming how those Afghan forces are trained.
Though not included in today's assessment, General Stanley McChrystal is soon expected to ask for thousands of more troops to fight an enemy he recently told ABC News could challenge Afghanistan's sovereignty.
The report arrived at U.S. Central Command and NATO as four more troops, including two Americans, were killed today, closing out what was already the deadliest month in the war's history.
Since a surge of U.S. Marines and soldiers began fighting in early July, at least 150 international troops have died -- nearly the same number killed in the first 27 months of the war, according to icasualties.org.
The assessment comes at a time when U.S. officials fear much of the country is slipping out of control. The Taliban have made new inroads in the north, now virtually control Kandahar City, and reports of widespread fraud and low turnout could rob an election designed to create positive momentum of its legitimacy.
The review, which is titled an "initial assessment," does not request additional troops, but its recommendations "clearly indicate that additional troops will be needed," according to a civilian advisor to McChrystal.
"Clearly the insurgency is serious right now. It has spread geographically, it has spread in intensity in certain areas, and its ability to coerce or control parts of the population has increased," McChrystal told ABC News earlier this month.
Today, in a statement released by U.S. forces in Kabul, he said the "situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort."
Afghan War Assessment Calls for Changing Troops' Role
The review's main focus is a fundamental alteration of how McChrystal wants troops to see their role, according to interviews with his military and civilian advisors as well as with Afghan officials whom he briefed on the plan last week.
It asks for troops to spend the majority of their time protecting the population rather than hunting the Taliban. As McChrystal wrote in an earlier strategy document: "The Afghan people are the Objective. Protecting them is the mission. Focus 95% of your time building relationships with them and, together with the Afghan government, meeting their needs. Get rid of the conventional mind-set. Focus on the people, not the militants."
That approach was welcomed by Afghan officials briefed on the plan as well as McChrystal's civilian advisors, both of whom say U.S. priorities in Afghanistan have been incorrect.
"Our focus was on hunting down terrorists, not on protecting the population and building governance for them," said Steven Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of about 10 civilian advisors who spent a few weeks in Kabul over the summer studying the war with McChrystal.
"That is I think what led to an undefended population and that made it entirely too easy for the Taliban to get access to them and rekindle the insurgency," Biddle said.
McChrystal's advisors believe that the United States has essentially been tricked into focusing on the wrong target. He often compares the war to the jousting between a matador (the Taliban) and a bull (international forces), they say.
"The cape is what the insurgents want security forces to react to -- they fire from compounds in built up areas and we react by using overwhelming force, putting civilians at risk," said a senior advisor to McChrystal.
"We have been chasing the wrong target by going after the insurgents directly, because they know we'll create more insurgents by our actions," the advisor said. "The shift has to be population-focused, in effect separating the insurgents from the people without causing harm to the innocent civilians."
But to spread security, U.S. commanders in Afghanistan believe thousands of more troops are needed. Initially McChrystal's assessment team recommended sending an additional four to six brigades of troops to Afghanistan -- representing at least 10,000 troops, according to U.S. officials. But that suggestion received tremendous "pushback" from the White House security team, according to the officials.
Afghanistan Troop Levels Questioned
Today in an interview with Bloomberg News, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said when he first saw a draft report earlier this year, he questioned McChrystal whether additional troops would help.
"One of the questions I asked him to address in the assessment was 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," Gates said.
Gates said he hadn't yet seen the final review.
"I think first we all need to look at the assessment and see how he thinks things are going, what things are needed and then we will turn our attention to whatever resource requirements he's put forward," the defense secretary said.
What is not controversial, according to U.S. officials, is a request to raise the training goals of Afghan soldiers and police to 250,000 and 134,000, respectively. The review calls for a transformation in how those forces will be trained. U.S. and Afghan officers, as well as enlisted men, will be physically placed much closer together.
"They're going to train together, eat together, sleep together," a McChrystal aide said.
McChrystal told Afghan officials last week that the Afghan army could be ready to assume primary responsibility for securing the country within three years, but that police would need much more time, according to an official who attended the meeting.
Although it's been widely discussed and accepted, the proposal to increase the forces will cost as much as $17 billion per year for the next five years -- nearly the same amount as the entire annual Afghan GDP, according to one of McChrystal's civilian advisors. And the costs could be questioned by a Congress increasingly aware of the slipping popularity of the war.
According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, even though approval of President Obama's handling of the war is still high, more than half of Americans now call it "not worth fighting" and support for reducing U.S. troop deployments there is up sharply.
Obama Faces Fading Support for Afghan War
Asked to assess whether the United States is winning in Afghanistan, just 42 percent said yes, while 36 percent said no.
"The administration here is in much more serious budget trouble than everybody wants to talk about, and coming up against pretty big Republican pushback," said one of McChrystal's civilian advisors.
The report also encourages U.S. troops to confront corruption among local officials. U.S. troops in Iraq did this in the last few years, officials say, to some success.
"Corruption is perhaps more responsible to the insurgency than anything else," said one of McChrystal's aides. Closer living quarters will keep police and troops honest, the aide said, but troops will be given the task to identify and try to change dishonest local powerbrokers.
U.S. officials hope the shift in strategy helps calm an insurgency that has never been more violent. At least 48 U.S. troops and 26 additional troops from Britain, Canada, Poland, Belgium, Estonia, and France died in August, making this month and last month by far the deadliest of the war.
Gates said the increased casualties were expected.
"The fact that we're going into areas where the Taliban have basically been unchallenged for a number of years means that our casualties are going to be higher," he said.
Both he and the White House today warned that turning Afghanistan around would not be easy. Robert Gibbs, President Obama's spokesman, blamed the prior administration for neglecting the war and asked for patience.
"You can't under-resource the most important part of our war on terror, whether it's under-resourced with troops, whether it's under-resourced with civilian manpower, whether it's under-resourced with economic development funding -- and hope to snap your fingers and have that turn around in just a few months," Gibbs said.
ABC News' Gary Langer contributed to this report.