Gen. Stanley McChrystal released his assessment of the current Afghanistan war strategy on Monday, calling for a new strategy that focuses on protecting civilians and relies more on Afghan forces. While his assessment did not include a specific request for more troops, he is soon expected to ask for a substantial increase in the military force there. "The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," McChrystal said on Monday. August was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began, claiming the lives of 49 -- more than one-fourth of all U.S. troops killed this year.
Already, the number of U.S. troops killed this year in Afghanistan has surpassed last year's total -- at 180 so far, compared to 155 last year.
President Obama has already called for more than 20,000 additional troops in Afghanistan to more than 68,000 troops by year's end. McChrystal's assessment team had recommended as many as six more brigades, which could mean about 30,000 more troops.
McChrystal is expected to request more troops , although it is not known whether he will ask for as many, or even more than his assessment team recommended. Whatever the number, it will be hotly debated throughout Washington and could put the president in an uncomfortable position. Given Obama's criticism of the Bush administration's handling of the war, accusing the former president of failing to properly fund the war, it would be difficult for Obama to turn down the requests of a new commander who is tasked with turning things around. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave insight into how this could be handled.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Gates said he asked McChrystal what an increase of thousands of troops would mean.
"One of the questions I asked him to address in the assessment when I was in Belgium with him was the implications of significant additional forces in terms of the foreign footprint in Afghanistan, whether the Afghans will see this as the U.S. becoming more of an occupier, or their partner," Gates said. "And also, what are the implications with respect to 'Americanization' of the war?"
The defense secretary's answer is revealing because it could provide the cover the administration needs to deal with a request from McChrystal for any significant increase in troops. As Gates made clear, he wants the assessment to include the pros and cons of adding more forces. If Obama is presented with a suggestion for more troops that lays out the dangers associated with that request, he can choose between two options -- troops vs. foreign footprint -- rather than turning down the option for more troops.
Another factor is the kind of troops the commander will request. McChrystal will almost certainly require more troops to train the dramatically increased number of Afghan security forces he is requesting. Sending in more trainers seems like an addition Obama has to make. But it would sound a lot different for the president to announce more "trainers" going into Afghanistan than more "combat troops." The "trainers," however, as with all U.S. forces, are, effectively, combat troops, and whether they engage in combat or not, they will need support troops, lots of them.
McChrystal has made it clear that he wants significant progress in the next 12 to 18 months. Assuming the progress he wants is on the security front, it is going to be a real challenge to achieve success without adding significant numbers of troops.
Winning the Fight in Afghanistan
Gates was also asked Monday whether the U.S. is winning the war in Afghanistan. He responded, "I think it's a mixed picture."
Gates said it would be hard to immediately find more troops for Afghanistan, given the more than 100,000 in Iraq that will eventually come home.
"Yes, it would be [hard]....because Stan McCrystal has said he needs things to change in Afghanistan quickly," Gates said.
It could also be hard to convince the public. In a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, more than half of Americans now call the war "not worth fighting" and support for reducing U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan is up sharply.
Influential columnist and ABC News contributor George Will is now saying U.S. troops should pull out, and rely on drones, intelligence and air strikes -- an argument sure to be debated in Washington, and one that could divide Capitol Hill.