Groundwork Is Laid for New Troops in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON - A new report by the top commander in Afghanistan detailing the deteriorating situation there confronts President Obama with the politically perilous decision of whether to deepen American involvement in the eight-year-old war amid shrinking public support at home.
The classified assessment submitted Monday by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who took over American and NATO forces in Afghanistan in June, did not request additional American troops, American officials said, but they added that it effectively laid the groundwork for such a request in coming weeks.
While details of the report remained secret, the revised strategy articulated by General McChrystal in recent public comments would invest the United States more extensively in Afghanistan than it has been since American forces helped topple the Taliban government following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Taking a page from the 2007 strategy shift in Iraq, he has emphasized protecting civilians over just engaging insurgents.
For Mr. Obama, who already ordered an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan this year, the prospect of a still larger deployment would test his commitment to a war he did not launch even as it grows more violent by the month.
He already faces growing discontent among his liberal base, not only over the war but also over national security policy, health care, gay rights and other issues.
An expanded American footprint would also increase Mr. Obama's entanglement with an Afghan government widely viewed as corrupt and illegitimate. Multiplying allegations of fraud in the Aug. 20 presidential election have left Washington with little hope for a credible partner in the war once the results are final.
The latest tally, with nearly half of the polling stations counted, showed President Hamid Karzai leading with 45.9 percent against 33.3 percent for his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, Reuters reported.
But the White House left open the possibility that Mr. Obama would send more troops. "There's broad agreement that for many years, our effort in Afghanistan has been under-resourced politically, militarily and economically," Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said Monday. He went on to use the words "under-resourced" and "under-resource" six more times during his daily briefing.
The report comes after a sharp escalation of violence in Afghanistan, where more American troops died in August than in any month since the beginning of the war.
The military announced Monday that two American soldiers died in separate attacks involving homemade bombs, bringing the total killed last month to 51, according to the Web site icasualties.org. The number of such attacks has nearly quadrupled since 2007, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," General McChrystal said in a statement after sending his report to Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of all Middle East forces.
A military official said General Petraeus immediately endorsed its findings and forwarded it on Monday to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will review it before sending it to the White House.
The report coincides with an effort by the Obama administration to develop a series of benchmarks, or metrics, to measure progress in Afghanistan, much as was done in Iraq. Congress has insisted on evidence of improvement to justify the additional troops, financial investment and civilian reconstruction teams already committed by Mr. Obama.
Mr. Gates said Monday that despite the "gloom and doom" that has characterized recent discussion, Afghanistan today is a "mixed picture."
He said he would consider any troop requests in the coming weeks, but told Bloomberg News that he was concerned about "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, and how do you differentiate those."
Shortly after taking office Mr. Obama ordered 17,000 more combat troops and 4,000 more trainers to Afghanistan, and once they all arrive the American force there will number 68,000. As the NATO commander, General McChrystal also has 40,000 additional foreign forces available to him, but some of their home governments have placed restrictions on how they can be used.
General McChrystal wants a large expansion of Afghan security forces and an acceleration of their training, according to American commanders. The Afghan government currently has about 134,000 police officers and 82,000 soldiers, although many of them are poorly equipped and have little logistical support.
Under the strategy described by General McChrystal and other commanders in recent weeks, the overriding goal of American and NATO forces would not be so much to kill Taliban insurgents as to make ordinary Afghans feel secure, and thus isolate the insurgents. That means using force less and focusing on economic development and good governance.
General McChrystal also intends to try to unify the effort of American allies like Britain, Canada, Germany and France, and possibly to ask them to contribute more troops, money and training.
With polls showing falling support for the Afghan war, critics in Congress have grown increasingly vocal in calling for withdrawal.
Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, returned from Afghanistan last week and said that despite the capable Americans now there, he was pessimistic about the chances of success and did not even know how to define it.
"I have this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that we're getting sucked into an endless war here," he said in an interview.
Some Afghanistan specialists said Mr. Obama might have to swallow his own doubts and defy his base. "I think he's going to have to tough it out," said James Dobbins, a former American envoy to Afghanistan. "The downside of a policy of disengagement and what would happen for now would be more severe both for the president and for the country." Mr. Obama has said that deciding to send the additional troops was the hardest decision he has made during his young presidency. On Sunday, just before ending his vacation in Martha's Vineyard, he visited briefly at the Cape Cod Air Station with the family of a 21-year-old Marine who was killed in Afghanistan in July.
Mr. Obama had met the Marine, Cpl. Nicholas Xiarhos, who was born in Hyannis, Mass., in February when he visited Camp Lejeune, N.C., to announce his plan to withdraw combat forces from Iraq. He told a story then of two Marines who stood in the path of a suicide bomber's truck and stopped it from entering a Marine outpost in Ramadi, Iraq, losing their own lives but saving dozens of their colleagues.
One of those saved was Corporal Xiarhos. He later shipped out to Afghanistan, where he was killed in action in July.
Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Dexter Filkins from Kabul, Afghanistan. Mark Mazzetti contributed reporting from Washington.