The U.S. general in charge of turning around the war in Afghanistan is likely to recommend significant changes to U.S. and NATO operations, military officials and others familiar with his forthcoming report said. Those changes could include additional U.S. troops despite political headwind against further expansion of the war.
As Gen. Stanley McChrystal readies his assessment of the war, due next month, numerous U.S. officials and outsiders apprised of his thinking suggest McChrystal will request more American troops, probably including Marines, to be added next year.
Officials and advisers spoke on condition of anonymity because the report is not complete, and because the number of forces to be requested is in flux. Several people familiar with the report cautioned that McChrystal could opt not to ask for an increase at all — a recognition that President Barack Obama and other White House advisers would not look favorably on adding new numbers to U.S. forces after already agreeing to boost their ranks by 21,000 troops earlier this year.
McChrystal's report contains a list of recommendations that have not been released, but military and defense officials have suggested that it will identify shortfalls in the size and skills of Afghan forces and recommend additional U.S. trainers or others to help.
A senior U.S. official said the rationale for needing more forces is tied to an altered strategy to clear and hold provinces where Taliban insurgents are fleeing as they are pushed out elsewhere.
McChrystal is also likely to recommend rearranging some U.S. and NATO forces to better meet a narrowed mission of protecting Afghan civilians and starve the insurgents of vital support.
The report was commissioned by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who hand-picked McChrystal to take the helm of combat operations against Taliban insurgents that top defense officials have conceded are stalemated.
Two of McChrystal's civilian advisers, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations, said this week they expect some expansion of troops. Neither adviser would quantify those numbers.
Biddle said Thursday he thinks the total number of troops in Afghanistan should number 300,000 to 600,000, including U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.
Current forces include 62,000 U.S. troops and 39,000 allied troops, plus about 175,000 Afghan Army and police. Some of the allies plan to pull their troops home in the next couple of years.
Several of the specific recommendations are undergoing what the Pentagon calls a "troops to task" analysis, to identify whether there are sufficient troops available or suited to the job. McChrystal is expected to discuss that review and his larger appraisal with Gates in the next two weeks.
Any request for additional U.S. forces would require touchy discussions with the White House and lawmakers. President Barack Obama approved a surprise addition of 4,000 U.S. trainers earlier in the spring, after his larger announcement of 17,000 combat troops, and administration and military officials had been signaling that further additions were unlikely for now.
Estimates of the additional forces McChrystal may request have ranged from a few thousand, such as a brigade numbering 4,000 to 5,000 and assigned to train the fledgling Afghan armed forces, up to 20,000 or more.
Obama's additions will bring the U.S. presence to about 68,000 by the end of this year. That is roughly double the size of the U.S. force when Obama took office, and although Afghanistan is now considered the nation's top military priority, the White House is deeply reluctant to keep adding, or to fight a skeptical Congress over the increase.
McChrystal's predecessor left behind an unfilled request for an addition of approximately 10,000 U.S. forces, and Obama had been expected to review that request near the end of the year.
McChrystal was encouraged by superiors to assess the war bluntly and not to hold back in asking for troops, money, or equipment, and he knows he probably only has a short period to do so, defense officials and others in Washington and Afghanistan said.
To prepare the report, McChrystal gathered about a dozen military and outside civilian analysts six weeks ago and sent them on an intensive reporting trip through Afghanistan. The group finished work last week.
One of the report's authors said the group identified some basic organizational problems with the way the fight is divided among U.S., NATO and Afghan forces.
"One of the real challenges Gen. McChrystal is going to have is that up to this point the war is being fought as four separate fights: north, east, west and south," said Andrew Exum, a counterinsurgency specialist and blogger at the Center for a New American Security. "We are trying to think more holistically."
The report, is "designed to outline the situation on the ground as we saw it, talk about the mission, what it would mean to accomplish the mission and then a little bit about resources and risks," Exum said.
Speaking for himself, Exum said McChrystal faces a much wider challenge than coming up with enough troops and resources. The "operational culture" of the war has to change, he said, meaning a shift away from traditional military operation and procedures.
"Our efforts in this war will succeed or fail based upon relationships we're able to build with our Afghan partners at every level," Exum said
"It's very difficult to build those partnerships from behind an MRAP," he said, referring to the tank-like troop carriers that help protect U.S. soldiers from roadside bombs. "There's going to have to be a real assumption of risk that U.S. and other allied forces might not feel comfortable with."