September 21, 2009

Article at Reuters

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SCENARIOS: Obama's options in Afghan war

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama faces key decisions on Afghanistan after the top U.S. and NATO commander there said the war would be lost unless more troops are sent to pursue a radically revised strategy.

U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal’s assessment does not, however, say how many more forces he wants. That request will come in a separate document that McChrystal has drawn up but not yet submitted to the Obama administration.

Once McChrystal makes his request, Obama will have to decide whether to back his military commanders fully, heed calls from within his own Democratic party not to deploy more troops or try to find a middle ground acceptable to both camps.

In an interview with ABC television broadcast on Sunday, Obama described himself as a “skeptical audience ... somebody who is always asking hard questions about deploying troops.”

Washington has 65,000 troops in Afghanistan and that figure is expected to reach 68,000 later this year. Other nations, mainly NATO allies, have some 38,000 troops there.

The following are some possible courses of action Obama could pursue:

PULL OUT

Some analysts and commentators have argued that U.S. forces should withdraw from Afghanistan and stop devoting large amounts of resources to nation-building and fighting Taliban militants.

Influential conservative columnist George Will voiced support for this option this month, arguing the United States should “do only what can be done from offshore.” But Obama is extremely unlikely to adopt this approach, at least for now.

Obama committed himself in March to a well-resourced broader counterinsurgency strategy. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has rejected the notion the war could be fought from a distance and dismissed talk of a U.S. military withdrawal as out of the question.

HOLD STEADY

Obama could decide to maintain the U.S. troop level at around 68,000. That figure represents an increase of about 36,000 since the start of the year, and the administration could decide it needs more time to evaluate how its strategy is working before making any changes.

This option appears fairly unlikely as McChrystal has made clear he wants more troops and it would be difficult for the administration not to provide at least some of those forces.

The administration could decide to add around 10,000 to 15,000 troops to provide more combat power and increase the training of Afghan forces.

With the insurgency still strong in the south, regaining ground in the east and making new inroads in other parts of the country, that may now be seen by military officers as the very minimum required. Another couple of brigades -- between 6,000 and 10,000 troops -- could now be deemed necessary.

This option would provoke some opposition among Democratic lawmakers but could still be acceptable to at least some of them, especially if the administration says that many of the extra troops will focus on training Afghan forces.

Some analysts believe the Afghan war effort is still greatly under-resourced despite this year’s troop increases and requires a further big boost in military forces, diplomats, aid experts and money.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has advised McChrystal, has suggested there may be a need for three to nine more brigades -- up to 45,000 more troops.

As well as being politically difficult at home, this would also raise concerns among U.S. officials that more Afghans will see NATO and U.S. forces as hostile occupiers if their presence is too large.

Gates has voiced this concern, although he has said he accepts McChrystal’s argument that Afghans’ perceptions will be driven more by how the troops behave than their numbers.

An increase of some sort appears most likely. But the size of any increase will depend partly on what McChrystal requests and Obama’s own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan and the U.S. political landscape.

Whichever option Obama chooses, it is likely to be accompanied by a renewed effort to increase the size and quality of Afghanistan’s security forces. Many officials see this as their long-term “exit strategy” -- a way eventually to allow U.S. and NATO forces to withdraw from the country.

McChrystal’s assessment calls for the Afghan army to be expanded to 134,000 troops by October 2010 instead of December 2011 as is currently planned. He also says the force should grow further to an estimated size of 240,000 troops. There are currently around 92,000 soldiers in the Afghan army.

McChrystal also calls for the expansion of the Afghan police from its current strength of 84,000 to 160,000 “as soon as practicable”.

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