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Urgent shift in works on Afghanistan

Military officials prep Obama, hoping he'll apply a 'tourniquet' to stanch the violence and extremist gains.

December 23, 2008|Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon and U.S. national security officials are transmitting a battery of new information about the Afghanistan war to President-elect Barack Obama's transition team in hopes that the incoming administration will act quickly to prevent U.S. fortunes there from eroding further.

The effort underscores a sense of urgency about addressing an increasingly dangerous situation in Afghanistan. Many military leaders think a broad strategic shift is needed to reverse the growing violence and to turn back troubling advances by the Taliban and other extremists.

Obama's staff is being given detailed information on the findings of separate strategy reviews by the Pentagon and the White House National Security Council. The reviews cover proposals to beef up U.S. force levels, improve coordination among government agencies and overhaul U.S. foreign aid efforts, including to countries such as Pakistan.

"Right now there is a sense you need to apply a tourniquet of some kind," said a senior Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing contacts with the transition team. "You need to control bleeding at the site of the wound, you need to stabilize, and you need to see what you need to do next."

After a record number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan this year, national security officials consider it crucial for the new administration to act soon after taking office. The senior Defense official said Obama would have a limited time period to announce a new strategy for Afghanistan and build up the troop strength.

"Over time, it will be harder to put more stuff in," the official said. "You have a window where you can do dramatic things. But the opportunity to do dramatic things reduces over time."

During the campaign, Obama said he wanted to intensify the military's focus on Afghanistan, elevating the war to a primary Pentagon effort.

Obama was briefed in person last week by Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on details of war plans.

Among other issues, Mullen described the size of the units the Pentagon plans to send to Afghanistan and when they would be sent, Defense officials said.

There are 36,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Based on plans already made public, about 20,000 new troops will be headed to Afghanistan in 2009. They include an additional Army brigade announced by President Bush in September and as many as four more brigades under plans endorsed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who will remain in his post under Obama.

One of those units, a 2,800-member aviation combat brigade, was approved last week by Gates and formally announced Monday by military officials. Defense officials said they thought Obama's transition officials were satisfied for now with proposals for force levels.

Many military officials think a short-term troop increase would help, but they believe it should be paired with improved efforts to train local militias, strengthen provincial governments, coordinate U.S. policy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, and make better use of U.S. civilian expertise.

Others are concerned that the extra troops could strain the military's logistics system. Gates would oppose larger numbers of extra troops as counterproductive, said a senior Pentagon official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The secretary believes that 'how much is too much' is a legitimate question," the Pentagon official said. "He does worry about the U.S. footprint getting too large."

Too many U.S. troops could weaken the Afghan government's will to build up its armed forces and take more responsibility, Gates is said to believe.

"He supports the additional combat brigades and aviation brigade," the official said. "Beyond that, it will start to look less like an Afghan operation and more like an occupation."

Mullen is overseeing the Pentagon strategy review. Army Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, appointed by Bush to coordinate war planning for the White House, is supervising the National Security Council review.

A third review is underway, overseen by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command overseeing forces in the Mideast. Obama will probably be briefed on the conclusions of that review too.

The Mullen and Lute reviews both conclude that any new strategy must examine Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, officials said. Both also discuss ways to increase cooperation between the Defense and State departments.

Those are considered noncontroversial recommendations likely to be embraced by Obama, who favors improved cooperation among national security agencies.

Mullen met Monday in Islamabad with top Pakistani military officials to urge continued action against militants, especially groups with any connections to last month's attacks in India. It was Mullen's seventh trip to Pakistan.

The security council will brief the Obama transition team on its findings before the end of the year, a senior administration official said. The agency has prepared large volumes of documents covering all aspects of the Afghanistan war, which officials will hand over to the new administration.

Lute is a political appointee, but it is possible that the career Army officer could be retained by James L. Jones Jr., the retired Marine Corps general who has been selected by Obama to serve as national security advisor.

Lute's security council plan suggests overhauling the aid program to Pakistan to force Islamabad to concentrate more of its forces in counterinsurgency operations on the border with Afghanistan. Lute also advocates continued use of U.S. airstrikes against militant targets in Pakistan, but advises against the use of ground forces, a military official said.

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julian.barnes@latimes.com

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