The Obama administration’s national security team is working on alternative strategies for the war in Afghanistan that may not require tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops, a senior U.S. official told CNN Wednesday.
The official, who is familiar with the highly confidential discussions, said the national security team hopes to send its proposals to President Obama within three weeks. The alternatives wouldn’t necessarily involve sending the additional troops Gen. Stanley McChrystal is expected to say would be needed to carry out the counterinsurgency strategy the president announced in March. Several sources told CNN that the assessment McChrystal sent to the administration a few weeks ago, which offered only the single plan for a full counterinsurgency effort, essentially gave the president no option other than to accept or reject it in full. Officials privately describe the situation as messy, saying it puts the president “in a box.” In his assessment McChrystal, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, predicted that the mission there would fail without more troops, more resources, and a major new U.S. commitment after eight years of war. Watch President Obama discuss the war in Afghanistan with CNN’s John King According to the senior U.S. official, one alternative being discussed inside the administration is to continue current military operations for the next year, but also to accelerate reconciliation with Taliban leaders and warlords. In addition, it would involve getting an agreement to base a significant U.S. military intelligence-gathering operation inside Afghanistan to keep watch for any re-emergence of al Qaeda. The official described this proposal as a “hybrid” strategy. It would be somewhat short of the pure counterinsurgency that would involve a large number of troops focused on fighting the Taliban, plus efforts to rebuild the country and its economic system. But it would have more capability than a counterterrorism strategy, in which a limited number of troops would target only al Qaeda.
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Despite public statements that the internal discussions are simply an effort to make sure the current strategy is the correct one, this official and others suggested that the debate reflects an urgent scramble to give the president new options in the wake of McChrystal’s assessment. This official also described a growing sense of urgency with each day that passes without a clear resolution to the Afghan presidential election. The question of the Afghan government’s reconciling with Taliban leaders may depend in large part on a functioning Afghan leadership with at least a perceived legitimacy, he said. The official also said that it’s now expected McChrystal will come back to Washington sometime in the weeks ahead to speak to the president and other National Security Council members about the situation in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s request for more resources to combat the insurgency will be sent to Washington in the next several days, according to Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell. McChrystal previously had been told by the Obama administration to delay presenting that force recommendation until he was asked for it, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates will now take the request and keep it confidential until decisions on strategy are made. Morrell confirmed that the request is more “analytical” in nature, not a detailed list of military units and pieces of equipment. It will be a recommendation about what resources are needed to carry out the counterinsurgency strategy of more troops and an extended commitment that McChrystal laid out in his assessment. But the administration’s request that a specific request for troops be delayed sparked controversy. “What I really don’t understand … is why you would tell your general in the field not to send his recommendations for the troop levels that are needed in order to implement a strategy which, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was formulated last March,” Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Tuesday. “Any leader, I think, would want to get the maximum amount of information from your people you have given positions of responsibility.” Watch CNN’s Barbara Starr report on the strategy options in Afghanistan In his assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, McChrystal warned that more troops would be needed within the next year or the war “will likely result in failure,” according to a copy of the 66-page document obtained by The Washington Post. “Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near term (next 12 months) — while Afghan security capacity matures — risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible,” McChrystal said in the document. On September 15, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told the Senate Armed Services Committee he wants a fully resourced counterinsurgency” in Afghanistan. Watch NATO’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen talk about the need to prevail in Afghanistan “A properly resourced counterinsurgency probably means more forces,” Mullen said, but how those forces would be composed in terms of combat troops and trainers would be a matter for discussion. “I have a sense of urgency about this,” he said. “I worry a great deal the clock is moving very rapidly.”
The United States now has about 62,000 troops in Afghanistan, and NATO and other allies have contributed about 35,000. The fighting has ramped up sharply in the past year as U.S. troops and the NATO-dominated coalition battle a resurgence of the Taliban, the al Qaeda-allied Islamic militia that ruled most of Afghanistan before the attacks. Washington poured an additional 21,000 troops into Afghanistan to provide security for its recent presidential election, which was marred by allegations of fraud.